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What’s next for the Rays?

by Matt Smith

MlbHlSqEarlier in the week we looked at the impact that Joe Maddon may have on the Chicago Cubs now that he has been unveiled as their new manager.

But what of his former team, the Tampa Bay Rays?

The Rays endured 10 losing seasons starting with their debut year in 1998, including going 127-197 combined in Maddon’s first two years in charge. The team showed faith in Maddon and it proved well-founded as his reign brought six consecutive winning seasons and four playoff appearances, including a 2008 American League championship and a World Series defeat against the Philadelphia Phillies.

One of the rising stars of the 2008 World Series run was a young left-handed pitcher starting his Major League career out of the bullpen. David Price had been yet another first overall pick for the Rays in the amateur draft the year before, the prize ‘gained’ by virtue of being the worst team in MLB the previous year.

Price was one of the new breed in Tampa Bay, someone who personified the change from a struggling expansion team to a young club that fans could be proud of. He has developed into one of the very best pitchers in MLB, winning the American League Cy Young award in 2012, yet unfortunately for a team like the Rays such success comes at a price (pun not intended).

Price spent most of the 2013/14 offseason waiting to be traded, knowing that the low revenue Rays would not be able to keep hold of him beyond the two years remaining on his contract. Surprisingly a deal never materialised, but it was only delaying the inevitable and, sure enough, Price joined the Detroit Tigers as the trade deadline loomed at the end of July.

Sad as it was to see him go, Rays fans understand that their team simply doesn’t have the money to keep hold of all of their young players when they get to free agency. Trading Price to get some new, younger players made sense and gave fans hope that they could continue to be a thorn in the side of their more illustrious AL East rivals.

What they didn’t expect was that one month after the end of the season they would lose both their highly-thought-of General Manger, Andrew Friedman, and then their manager (the latter leaving in part due to an opt-out clause activated by Friedman’s departure).

First the big pocketed Detroit took Price, then the staggeringly wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers took Friedman, then the big-market – despite low recent spending – Chicago Cubs took Maddon.

With all this turmoil coming after their worst season since 2007, has the Tampa Bay Rays’ run come to an end?

There is only so long a team can punch above their weight and Rays fans may fear that Friedman and Maddon are jumping from a ship that, whilst maybe not being about to sink, is about to drift off into the backwaters for another ten-year spell in the doldrums.

The Rays’ recent successful period was built on high amateur draft picks acquired in their years of poor performances. Those high picks have dried up whilst the Major League team was enjoying winning ways and prospect experts generally have been underwhelmed by their draft crops of late.

For a team desperately weighed down by an unattractive dome stadium with less-than-ideal transport links, success on the field hasn’t brought significantly larger crowds and the revenue that goes with extra bums on seats. Consequently the spectre of a potential franchise move has grown in recent weeks and although the team has played down any thoughts of an imminent move away from Florida, questions remain as to whether there is a local market to support an MLB team long term.

The soon-to-be former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has stated that one of the legacies he hopes to have left is an MLB in which fans of every team have genuine reason to believe next year may be their year, accepting that all teams go through down years every now and then.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals have been part of that argument in the last two seasons by turning long losing runs into playoff appearances. However, the Tampa Bay Rays were the real shining beacon, holding their own against the Yankees and Red Sox through good amateur drafts, clever trades and bold, innovative management.

The Rays’ current predicament may show the limit to what MLB’s parity can achieve. Even the teams with the most money don’t get it right every year; the lower market teams have much less margin for error. It’s just the law of the jungle that at some point a team like the Rays will see their top employees snatched away by the big boys.

But maybe there is more hope for Tampa Bay than all this suggests.

Latching onto a football example, every man and his dog was predicting oblivion for Southampton after they lost their executive chairman Nicola Cortese and manager Mauricio Pochettino and then sold most of their best players prior to this season. What was overlooked was that their success was part of a wider culture developed at the club that still remained despite the departure of those individuals.

Friedman and Maddon’s reputations were not simply down to working alone. One quality every successful manager in any line of business must possess is the ability to build a good team around them and, by all accounts, the Rays’ Front Office and coaching staff contain plenty of bright minds and good people.

The Rays have announced a short-list of candidates to be their new manager. Whoever succeeds Maddon will have big shoes to fill and there will be an adjustment period as the whole club moves on. Yet far from being the end, this may just be the start of a new beginning for the Rays, even if that’s difficult to imagine while getting used to their former manager wearing another team’s uniform.

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