When the Rays shockingly took the division in 2008, many Yankee fans dismissed it as an aberration, and suggested that the Rays would fall out of contention once their current crop of younger stars neared free agency. However, it seems that the Rays have a contingency plan in place to prevent that from happening. From Buster Olney:
But if they languish in the AL East race behind the Yankees and Red Sox, or if they got hit by a wave of injuries, then there would appear to be a chance that they would start looking to deal Crawford, Pena, Soriano and others.
Just like sailors in a lifeboat, the Rays must constantly bail payroll, whenever and wherever they can, which is why they must rely, always, on the young and cheap players whenever and however they can. “It’s what we have to do,” said Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ general manager. “It’s our lot in life. We have to have as many different options of talented players to mix and match and construct a 25-man roster as we can.”
The development of three rising prospects in particular will be crucial for the Rays, for this season, and for seasons to come…..
(Buster goes on to provide reports on Wade Davis, Desmond Jennings, and Jeremy Hellickson).
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask a MLB GM with a payroll similar to that of the Rays about the way in which teams operate under such constraints. He explained to me that teams like his and the Rays work in cycles, whereby they attempt to develop a crop of prospects, ride them to contention through their arbitration years, and then trade them for more prospects so as to start the cycle over. In this way, they hope to contend for 2-3 seasons, with each cycle lasting 6-7 years. This is how it works for most clubs, with the Marlins, Athletics, and Indians providing a fine example of this system.
However, the Rays have become so good at developing talent that, at least for now, they seem poised to bypass the downturn of their current cycle. As they shed players such as Crawford and Scott Kazmir, they are ready to replace them with mega-prospects such as the three discussed by Buster. With this base of talent available to them (they are a top 3 system by every ranking I have seen), they should remain a threat to the Yankees for a while yet.
Photo Credit: NY Daily News