For me, the model franchise for small market teams is the Tampa Bay Rays. That’s probably the case for a lot of other people, and for good reason. The Rays broke out in 2008, winning 97 games and the competitive AL East. Four teams in that division won 86 or more games, yet the Rays posted one of the best records in baseball with one of the smallest payrolls. They weren’t one-and-done either.
In 2009, the Rays went 84-78. They returned to the playoffs in 2010, winning the AL East with a 96-66 record. Last year they missed out on the East, but took the AL Wild Card spot with a 91-71 record.
Their opening day payroll in 2008 was $43.75 M. Their payroll jumped as high as $72.8 M in 2010, but dropped back down to the $42 M range in 2011. This year it started at $63.6 M. During this stretch they’re a team that spends $40-75 M, which is below the league average, even at the high end of that scale.
When it came to free agents, the Rays had to watch top guys like Carl Crawford go. They did spend some money, adding guys like Carlos Pena and Pat Burrell, although not all of those moves worked out as expected (looking at you, Burrell). That said, when it came to trades, they didn’t really spend. In fact, they relied on their farm system to produce the talent, then traded away their top guys when they got too expensive.
Take the 2008 season. The Rays were in contention and on pace for their first winning record in franchise history. Their big trade that year? Adding Gabe Gross on April 22nd. In fact, that was their only trade. They had the prospects to land anyone they wanted, but ended up staying with the team they had at the deadline.
After the 2008 season they dealt Edwin Jackson to Detroit for Matt Joyce (who currently has an .899 OPS and 11 homers in 201 at-bats for them). They also dealt Jason Hammel for Aneury Rodriguez prior to the 2009 season, in a move that was made due to a lack of space in the majors. That hasn’t worked out as well in the long term, considering Hammel’s success this year. But the Rays aren’t exactly missing him.
During the 2009 season they made a few minor trades, with the key addition being Gregg Zaun early in the August waiver period. They were seven back in their division at the time, but only a game and a half back from the AL Wild Card. By the end of August they dealt Scott Kazmir to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez, Matt Sweeney, and Alexander Torres (who is currently their sixth best prospect).
After the 2009 season they dealt Akinori Iwamura to the Pirates, as they didn’t need him with options like Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez. They flipped Jesse Chavez, who they got in the deal, for Rafael Soriano, taking on some salary. They added Kelly Shoppach for Mitch Talbot, who was a player to be named later.
During the season they made one trade. That was for reliever Chad Qualls, who they got for a player to be named later on July 31st. They were en route to a 96 win season, with a 64-39 record at the deadline.
After the 2010 season it looked like the Rays were rebuilding. In fact, with any other team you could use that word. They dealt Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza in separate deals, restocking their farm system and creating space for their top prospects to join the majors. In the Garza deal they added Hak-Ju Lee and Chris Archer, ranked their number two and three prospects heading in to the 2012 season. They also added Brandon Guyer, their number 11 prospect.
In 2011 they found themselves in another pennant race. And what trades did they make during the season? None, other than selling Felipe Lopez to Milwaukee.
Four years in a row the Tampa Bay Rays have found themselves in contention at the trade deadline. They’ve won two divisions, and took one Wild Card spot, all in the hardest division in baseball. The top guys they added in-season during that time frame were Gabe Gross and Greg Zaun. Those additions make Derrek Lee look like Justin Upton.
The Rays could have had any player they wanted during that span. They could have dealt any one of their current major league players when they were just prospects. Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings. Some of the prospects they could have dealt would have looked good in hindsight. A Wade Davis/Reid Brignac return for Jason Bay at the time would have looked great. Now? Davis has been good in relief, and Brignac is a defensive shortstop with a weak bat.
Not all prospects work out, but hindsight is the only way to know which ones won’t work out. If you get in the habit of dealing prospects away, you’re more likely to deal away someone you’ll miss. That’s not to say the Rays have never dealt away a prospect. One of their biggest deals was trading Delmon Young for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. Delmon was more of a young major league player than a prospect, but the return of Garza and Bartlett made it worthwhile (and helped start their run of success). But that’s more the exception. In general, the Rays get help from their farm system. They don’t even deal away guys like Alex Cobb.
When it comes to the Pirates, I tend to lean more with what the Rays do, rather than what teams like Milwaukee have done. Rather than dealing away prospects to make a big splash, I’d rather see the Pirates hold on to their prospects and add low cost pieces. I’m not totally with the Rays’ plan. If the Pirates can get another Derrek Lee type deal, I’d go for it. But I see so many people just casting off one or two of the Indianapolis left-handers like they’re nothing, or worse, talking about dealing someone like Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, or Luis Heredia because the Pirates can spare one. That’s just not a good plan for a small market team. That’s the approach the Brewers have taken, and look at their farm system now.
Making a splash at the deadline is nothing more than making a statement. A statement doesn’t win games. It just says you’re trying hard to win. Sometimes that statement isn’t needed. The Rays didn’t need to make a statement. They just took the team that was winning for four months, and kept that team together to win for the final two months of the year. To me, winning is the statement you need to make. If you need to deal away valuable prospects to make a statement, then you’re probably focused more on ticket sales and appeasing fans. And if you take that approach and cast off prospects like they’re easily expendable, then you’ve got no shot of a home grown rotation like the Rays have, with former top prospects like David Price, James Shields, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson. And the same goes for lesser prospects. Casually deal away guys like Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson for a two month rental, and you miss the chance to get an Alex Cobb stepping up when you need a replacement starter.
The Pirates are a small market team. They got here largely by operating as a small market team. They didn’t give up much in trades to acquire talent, and they benefitted from some of those moves made out of desperation at the deadline. Going forward, they need to continue acting like a small market team. And the best example for any small market team to follow is the Rays.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates beat the Giants 3-1.
**Pirates Notebook: McCutchen Won’t Repeat Second Half Slump.
**Prospect Watch: Stetson Allie Hits First Homer, Marte Extends Hitting Streak.