ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – Fifteen of the younger pitching candidates for the Tampa Bay Rays were gathered for a workout last month at Tropicana Field, the team’s home dome.
Several were anonymous to non-students of the Rays organization, and yet there’s a good chance all will appear in a big-league boxscore before the season concludes Sept. 29.
“We used 31 pitchers last season,” manager Kevin Cash said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we used 41 this season.”
The Twins used 30 pitchers (excluding position players) last season. Many of those auditions came from desperation. For the Rays, they were trying to win, and they did so in astounding fashion, turning a 4-13 start into a 90-72 finish.
That was 90-72 with 38 games in the AL East against the champion Red Sox and the mighty Yankees, in which the low-budget Rays went 17-21.
The Tampa Bay Rays are the biggest underdogs in major American sports. Every spring, the Rays are Buster Douglas climbing in the ring to face Mike Tyson — and Evander Holyfield, simultaneously.
Amid horrible attendance at a horrible stadium on the wrong side of the causeway, there’s also the fact the Rays are constantly having their baseball department raided for talent.
There were seven managers hired this offseason, and two came out of the Rays dugout: field coordinator Rocco Baldelli to the Twins and bench coach Charlie Montoyo to the Blue Jays.
Chaim Bloom, Rays vice president for baseball operations, said: “The Twins hired two of our finest people — Rocco, and Bill Evers as his bench coach. Rocco’s sharp and he’s sincere. That allows him to relate to all different people.”
Bloom has a working relationship with General Manager Erik Neander that’s similar to Derek Falvey and Thad Levine in Minnesota, with the GM in this case generally getting last call if one is needed on a Rays personnel matter.
On this January day, there was a home show behind temporary barricades taking up much of the Trop’s outfield. The upper deck had dusty tarps from previous seasons draped across many rows. That deck will be closed completely this season, putting capacity under 26,000.
Why not? The 90-win Rays had an average announced attendance of 14,258 in 2018.
“We have some challenges on the revenue side,” Bloom said. “We respond by playing to our strengths. We have quite a few good young pitchers, and we’ll use many of them. In this division, we have to create our own path.”
The Rays traded Nathan Eovaldi to Boston on July 25 for lefthander Jalen Beeks, allowing Eovaldi to become a World Series hero and to receive a four-year, $68 million contract from the Red Sox in December.
“Best guy you’ll ever meet,” Bloom said. “Everyone here is happy for Nathan.”
The Rays also traded two-time All-Star pitcher Chris Archer to Pittsburgh at the July 31 deadline for pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz and outfielder Austin Meadows. Bloom called it a package the Rays couldn’t pass up.
The Rays were 62-61 on the morning of Aug. 19. That day in Fenway Park, Beeks followed an “opener” with four strong innings in a 2-0 victory. That started a final stretch where the Rays went 28-11.
Last spring, I went to Rays camp in Port Charlotte, Fla., to get some insight on the radical concept of opening the season with four starters, with a “bullpen game” when it was a fifth starter’s turn.
Then, Eovaldi was hurt to open the season, and it evolved from needing two bullpen games every trip through the rotation, to what’s now “the opener” — a pitcher starting the game with the plan to get through the order once, and then bring in the cavalry.
The Rays had their Cy Young Award-winning lefty, Blake Snell, make 31 starts. They had Ryne Stanek, their ace opener, make 29 starts — with openers making a total of 55 starts (34 percent of the schedule).
The concept became widely copied, including by the Twins in September. They used an opener in eight of their final 27 games, with Gabriel Moya serving in the role six times.
Tampa Bay was the first American League team to start dramatic fielding shifts with Joe Maddon as manager at the start of this decade. The first time the Rays displayed that strategy in Yankee Stadium, hits were turned into outs for Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and bats were thrown.
Andrew Friedman, the baseball boss who transformed the Rays into an analytic juggernaut, went to the Dodgers after the 2014 season, and Maddon also departed for the Cubs. Those teams have now represented the National League in three consecutive World Series.
The Friedman-Maddon combination with the Rays had six consecutive winning seasons from 2008 to 2013, with a 2008 World Series, three other postseason appearances and five 90-win seasons.
Neander and Bloom were young brainiacs around the office for Friedman after he started in October 2005. They have become the next generation of innovators, and the “opener” could be followed by another eventful change:
In the days of overflowing bullpens and squeezed rosters, the two-way player could go from the novelty it was with Shohei Ohtani in Anaheim in 2018 to a strategy in Tampa.
The Rays have Brendan McKay, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, rising through the system as a potential phenom as a lefthanded pitcher and hitter. They also have Tanner Dodson, a second-rounder in 2018, following McKay as a righthander.
Are we approaching the day when the first baseman walks to the mound to pitch the seventh inning as a strategy and not as a comical mop-up moment?
“We haven’t done that yet with Brendan or Tanner in the minors,” Bloom said. “I don’t think it’s out of the question in the future.”
And there’s no better place for this than Tampa Bay, where creating a unique path is the only option when sharing a division with big-dollar behemoths.