It was October 19, 2008. Defending World Series champions against the first Rays team to ever compete in the playoffs. $147,075,645 vs $51,020,720. David Price induced a ground out to second baseman Akinori Iwanura, and the Rays, a year removed from having the worst record in the bigs, a team that had never finished above fourth place in the AL East, had just won the pennant.
The Rays were not the first tight-budget team to enjoy such success, but given the collective history of the franchise, it was nothing short of serendipitous, or so it seemed. I hesitate to delve into debates pertaining to market size because, well, the Rays are not situated in a small market to begin with. The same goes for the Oakland A’s. Now, that being said, the Rays obviously do not have the revenue streams or gains compared some of their counterparts, but much of that can be attributed to a terrible ballpark and anemic attendance numbers, coupled with a weak local TV deal, although it appears that particular situation is soon to be rectified.
The 2008 season in general was the culmination of all of my worst premonitions come true, as the Yankees finished in third place in the AL East and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. The Rays won the division with the greatest single-season turnaround in league history, and the Red Sox finished in second, clinching a wild card spot. But the question remained: how did the Rays get it done?
The most important component of their success was a certain third baseman named Evan Longoria, who now resides with the San Francisco Giants. In 2008, Longoria won the Rookie of the Year Award and finished the season with an OPS+ of 127, and showcased his otherworldly defensive prowess by posting 10 defensive runs saved and a 16.0 ultimate zone rating, though he somehow did not win a Gold Glove in his preliminary campaign.
Not to worry, as Longoria now has three of those shiny mits in his collection. Along with Longoria, there was the radiant versatility of super-utility man Ben Zobrist, now a World Series hero for the Royals and Cubs. Although he appeared in just 62 games during the regular season, Zobrist posted an .844 OPS and showed off his glove work as well.
Is it fitting that Joe Maddon, the Emmett Brown of Major League Baseball, has won two pennants with Zobrist in the same clubhouse? Maddon was the center of it all. Perhaps he prefers his blunt eccentricity to overshadow his shrewd baseball brain, and I don’t blame him. Beginning in the same 2008 season, Maddon, much to the dismay of his opponents and the baseball savants, employed the shift, a tactic used to detain pull hitters by placing an odd number of defenders on the side of the field that corresponds to the batter.
Maddon also used spray charts, and even made a pitcher bat eighth in the lineup in an August 2013 game against the Dodgers, his penultimate season in Tampa Bay.
Dioner Navarro, Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwanura, Jason Bartlett, Longoria, Carl Crawford, Melvin Upton, Gabe Gross, and Cliff Floyd. How many of those names can you recall, one or two? Maybe Three? What appeared to be an unimposing lineup was one of the best units in the majors in 2008, as the Rays finished third in walk rate, tenth in OPS, eighth in wOBA, and fifth in wRC+.
A starting rotation anchored by James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, and Scott Kazmir produced a unit that finished 11th in FIP, ninth in strikeout to walk ratio differential, and fourth in WHIP.
By the All Star break, the Rays were 55-39, just behind Boston in the division race. After the break, they never relinquished the top spot in the East. Of course, the number of detractors were still in abundance. When the playoffs began, most thought the Rays and Mr. Maddon would crumble.
How wrong they were. They won the divisional series against the White Sox, a team that won the World Series just three years prior. As aforementioned, they bested the BoSox in seven games in the ALCS. The world, or at least every Major League ballpark, had been turned upside down.
Their triumphant run would end against the Phillies, as they lost the Fall Classic in five games, though the series was tightly contested.
It wasn’t even the 2008 season that made people perplexed. For the next five years, the Tampa Bay Rays advanced to the playoffs three more times, including clinching another division title in 2010.
They even had a book written about their analytical approach. While the Rays did not win the World Series, they accomplished something still, for they had changed the game. It is my belief that Joe Maddon is already a Hall of Fame manager. What he did with the Rays from 2008-2013 is one of the greatest jobs ever done by any manager.
His work with the Cubs, though still in progress, is also high up there, obviously with the breaking of the Curse of the Billy Goat being his greatest. Don’t forget, in 2014, the year before Maddon took over, that the Cubs went 73-89 and were outscored by 93 runs. The subsequent season, the Cubs went to the NLCS for the first time in 12 years. The rest is history.
The 2008 Rays sent many messages to front offices and managers, but some are more apparent than others. For one thing, payroll is no guarantee of success. Just ask the 2017 Astros (19th), or the 2010 Rangers (22nd), or the 2002 Angels (15th), or the 2003 Marlins (20th), or the Royals in 2014 and 2015 (19th and 13th, respectively). I don’t think I need to mention Billy Beane and his exploitation of market inefficiencies. Bottom line, payroll is an overrated point of debate, as there are dozens more examples that anyone could simply look up.
For another, the Rays reminded everyone that tanking comes down to this: years of losing to mortgage a few years (or sometimes a sustained run, like my Yankees) of success. In some cases, tanking could be worth it for some teams and fans (ask any Cubs fan if they thought the rebuild initiated by Esptein from 2012-2014 was worth it). The Rays, for all their success during 2008-2013 despite their circumstances, became a losing team once again after Maddon departed.
The Rays were the most pathetic team in baseball for 20 seasons, all of that culminating in a five-year run.
But overall, they taught baseball valuable lessons beyond what I have mentioned. While it’s cliche, they were truly a team of misfits and outcasts, save for a few names. A group of people who were unwanted by 29 other teams turned a junk bond into a share of Apple.
It’s strange to reminisce about those Rays ten years later. It’s been that long? Hard to believe. Maybe a few of the players who were on the team ponder over Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon, wondering what finishing the job is like. It may not be consolation to them, but they finished a job of their own during that 2008 season: shock the world.