ALCS: Why not the Rays?

The Red Sox have their hands full with Tampa Bay, whose 31-win improvement was no fluke.

Topics: Baseball,

The American League Championship Series features two of the smartest organizations in baseball.

The Boston Red Sox, defending champions and winners of two of the last four World Series, meet the Tampa Bay Rays, who ended 10 years of Red Sox-New York Yankees hegemony by winning the A.L. East. The last team that wasn’t the Yankees or Red Sox to win the East was the Baltimore Orioles in 1997. Ask your parents, kids. The Orioles used to win once in a while.

The Rays didn’t used to, and their rocket ride from 66 wins and last place to 97 wins, the division title and one step from the Series is the baseball story of the year.

The Rays did it in much the same way the Red Sox have done it for the last few years, with savvy management making smart baseball decisions. A big difference is that the Red Sox have all the money in the world that the Yankees don’t have while the Rays have to hold a bake sale to sign a relief pitcher.

Depending on whose figures you want to use, the Red Sox had a payroll of around $140 million, which was about $100 million more than that of the Rays. And what the Red Sox got for that $100 million was second place in the East.

Still, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has largely replaced Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, the star subject of the Michael Lewis bestseller “Moneyball,” as the poster boy for sabermetrically smart baseball management, even if Epstein hasn’t had to build teams on the cheap the way Beane has.

And with the A’s struggling on the field and trying to rebuild the last two years, the Red Sox have supplanted Oakland as the team that represents the so-called Moneyball revolution, an amorphous term that more or less means the Red Sox don’t bunt or steal much.

Now along come the Rays, who as the Devil Rays were poster boys for the opposite of what Epstein and Beane do. Harvard Business School famously used the 1980s A’s as a model of how to run an organization. If anyone ever wanted to teach a class on how not to do it, the Devil Rays would make a marvelous case study and a nice break from all those Wall Street firms. The team rarely made a move, baseball or otherwise, that made any sense at all.

The culture began to change when ownership did, following the 2005 season. Wall Street investor Stuart Sternberg bought the team from hapless Vince Naimoli and began cleaning house. A terrific column by John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times in July described how Sternberg, a former partner in Goldman Sachs, brought Wall Street principles to the Rays.

That doesn’t sound like something to brag about now, but then again, Sternberg retired from Goldman Sachs in 2002 and is now in the recession-resistant business of baseball. So he might be worth listening to.

Romano summed up the philosophy in four bullet points:

  • Information is king. Statistical and scouting information.
  • Value vs. cost. That is, the “Moneyball” thing, finding cheaper solutions to problems the Yankees and Red Sox can throw money at.
  • Emotional detachment: No falling in love with a player or worrying about what the commentariat thinks of a decision.
  • Intelligent risks.

General manager Andrew Friedman, working off these principles, was able to parlay the team’s decade worth of high draft picks into a series of smart deals that helped turn the team around.

The media is showering credit for the Rays’ success on field manager Joe Maddon, with his “9=8″ hokum and general oddball Renaissance-man leadership style. This column loves iconoclasts, and Maddon is by all accounts a razor-sharp baseball man who, at 54, has a chance to have a fairly long, successful career as a manager.

But he’s the same glasses-wearing, book-reading, epigram-spouting polymath who led Tampa Bay to 61 and 66 wins the last two years. The difference this year is he has better players.

In one of two signature trades for the new regime, the Rays traded toolsy outfielder Delmon Young to Minnesota last winter for pitcher Matt Garza and defensive shortstop Jason Bartlett. That trade signaled the end of the Rays gathering talent, through the draft and other means, and the beginning of the process of building a baseball team.

They moved Akinori Iwamura from third base to second, where his bat plays better and he’s a fine defender. In May, they called up all-everything third baseman Evan Longoria, who lived up to his billing. Former infield prospect B.J. Upton has matured into a solid center fielder.

The other signature trade was in June 2006, when journeymen Mark Hendrickson and Toby Hall went to the Los Angeles Dodgers for, among others, Dioner Navarro, who began living up to his promise late last year and became an All-Star at 24 this season. The Rays signed Carlos Pena off the scrap heap last year and he became their big slugger.

Sixteenth-round pick James Shields and 13th-rounder Andy Sonnanstine have rounded into solid starters, joining Garza and Scott Kazmir — the old ownership’s one great move, stolen from the New York Mets in a 2004 trade — in the playoff rotation. The odd man out there is Edwin Jackson, who after scuffling for years turned in his first solid season. Shields is the old man of this group. He’s 26.

The excellent bullpen was cobbled together using more smarts than money, as most good bullpens are.

What a team! But can they beat the Red Sox?

Why not. Forget about the huge improvement. There’s nothing fluky or magical about the Rays. The “9=8″ T-shirts are nice, but adding Garza, Pena and Longoria, having several players come into their own and massively upgrading the defense and bullpen are what brought the Rays to the ALCS. The Atlanta Braves seemed to come out of nowhere when they went last to first in 1991, but it turns out they were legit. Same goes for the Rays.

The Red Sox are legit too. You may have heard of some of these guys. What the Sox have lost in the departed Manny Ramirez and the injured David Ortiz, who’s struggling with a sore wrist, and Mike Lowell, who’s out with a bad hip, they’ve made up for with new blood, most notably Jason Bay, who has made Red Sox fans forget old whatshisdreads, and Dustin Pedroia, who was around last year, but this year turned into a guy who shows up in MVP conversations. He’s been slumping of late, though. Jed Lowrie has replaced bad decision Julio Lugo at shortstop.

Lowell has been replaced by Mark Kotsay, who’s playing first base while Kevin Youkilis moves across to play third. That’s fine defensively, but it’s a loss at bat. Another problem at the plate would arise if J.D. Drew, who’s back has been balky, misses much time.

Without getting too deeply into parsing the matchups, because all of these guys are good enough to be great, and even the great ones have off days, the starting rotations look pretty even. It’ll go Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Shields and Josh Beckett vs. Kazmir in Florida, then Garza vs. Jon Lester and Sonnanstine vs. Tim Wakefield in Boston. I’d be happy to take either side in any of those matchups, except that I wouldn’t want the knuckleballer Wakefield pitching for my team in the postseason.

He’s an old warhorse, but he also has a career 6.36 postseason ERA in 69 and a third innings covering 10 starts and seven relief outings, and I wouldn’t want my team’s playoff fortunes riding on the unpredictable flutterings of a knuckler.

The bullpens are both good, but I’d take Tampa’s. The Red Sox have the lights-out closer, Jonathan Papelbon, but the Rays are deeper, and pitchers who can get guys out are important whether they have their own music or not. The Rays have more of them.

It figures to be a close series. I wouldn’t bet against seeing a pitcher’s duel or two and a slugfest or two. Both teams do almost everything well, and different skills will take different days. That’s what you get when two of the smartest teams in baseball get together.

Prediction: Rays in seven


King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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