When the Twins looked to revamp their coaching staff and lineup over the past few years, they frequently looked to the Tampa Bay Rays. Several key contributors have come from that organization — which has a much smaller payroll and attendance than the Twins — including manager Rocco Baldelli, bench coach Derek Shelton, major league coach Bill Evers, starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi and first baseman C.J. Cron.
The two teams started a four-game series in Tampa Bay on Thursday night, with the Rays crushing the Twins 14-3. While the Twins are off to the hottest start in franchise history and have an American League-best record of 37-17, the Rays were only 1½ games behind them at 35-19 and trailed the Yankees in the AL East by only one-half game.
The Rays are considered one of the most innovative organizations in baseball because every year they find ways to win with a low payroll and small attendance.
Since 2010, the Rays have the third-best winning percentage (.527) in the American League, trailing only the Yankees (.561) and the Red Sox (.542). The Twins rank 14th out of 15 American League clubs in winning percentage (.462) over that stretch.
This year the Rays are continuing to do more with less.
They rank last in MLB in payroll, according to Spotrac.com, at $63.3 million. The closest club to them is Baltimore at $73.5 million. But their main division rivals dwarf them in payroll: the Red Sox are spending an MLB-high $225.5 million this season and the Yankees are third in MLB at $210.5 million.
The Rays rank 29th in attendance, averaging only 13,940 fans per game. The only team worse is the miserable Miami Marlins, averaging only 9,554.
But somehow the Rays find ways to win. They reached the World Series in 2008, when they lost to the Phillies in five games. They have reached the postseason three times since then, most recently in 2013.
But there's no doubt that if they didn't play in the superior American League East, they would have several more playoff appearances.
Rocco on Rays system
Baldelli played six seasons with the Rays before coaching there for four seasons. Last year he worked under manager Kevin Cash and bench coach Charlie Montoyo.
Baldelli will manage against Cash this weekend, while Montoyo is in his first season managing the Blue Jays. He told me earlier this year why he thinks the Rays keep winning.
"[The Rays] have done an obviously very good job with a different set of resources than most teams," he said. "They have very good information. They have kind of made it, for the last 10 or 15 years, their goal to have very good information to work off. They also have very good systems for drafting, trading for and developing young players.
"I think the goal over there is to get as many good young players as they can, put them together, start with that and work off of that. They have been able to do that very, very well. Without those good, young players to build off, it is very hard to do anything else."
Odorizzi on Rays
Twins righthander Jake Odorizzi will pitch against his former club in the series finale Sunday. He praised the Rays, even though they dealt him to the Twins for minor league shortstop Jermaine Palacios in February of 2018. He said the Rays coaching staff really set him up for big league success.
"Jim Hickey, our pitching coach [from 2007-2017], really helped me out when I was coming up, kind of taught me the ropes about my stuff, how to work it, that sort of thing," he said. "I did a good job of absorbing his notes throughout the years. I still apply them to this day."
In five seasons with the Rays, Odorizzi went 40-37 with a 3.82 ERA over 698 innings, striking out 639. He was 7-10 in 32 starts last season for the Twins, and his 4.49 ERA was the highest of any full season in his career.
He said he understood the reason he was traded.
"Yeah, sometimes new scenery is a good thing," he said. "Last year didn't exactly go how I wanted it to, but this year is a lot better and it is really fun to play in front of these guys and this offense."
This season, Odorizzi has the best ERA in the AL at 2.16 over 58⅓ innings. He's also 7-2, having won his past seven decisions.
"Wes [Johnson], our pitching coach, has done a really good job. His philosophies are a little bit different than a lot of guys, but I was doing a lot of it this winter," Odorizzi said. "It was a good carryover for me and I just want to stay right where I'm at for as long as I can.
"I wasn't happy with my year last year, so I was doing some new stuff, some new mobility stuff, mechanical tweaks, and it has really paid off this season. I took them to spring training and spring training has carried over into the season. I just want to keep repeating my mechanics and be consistent with my mechanics for as long as I can."
Odorizzi isn't the only success story on the staff. Entering Thursday, the Twins had the third-best ERA in the AL (3.71) after posting a 4.50 ERA last season. And the Twins benefited from one of the best stories of the year Tuesday when lefthander Devin Smeltzer — a cancer survivor who came to the organization from the Dodgers in the Brian Dozier trade — was called up from Class AAA Rochester and allowed only three hits over six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts in his big league debut against a talented Brewers lineup.
"Hopefully it keeps going," Odorizzi said. "It is fun right now. I think everyone in our starting staff is running with the ball right now, so it is fun to kind of take the ball after a lot of guys are doing well in front of you."
Does he think the Twins can keep this kind of pace up the rest of the season?
"As long as it wants to go, I guess," the 29-year-old righthander said. "I just try to get the batter at the plate each time and if I can keep doing it throughout the game, even better."
Odorizzi and the rest of the staff have been helped by the Twins' explosive offense. Through 54 games the Twins led all of baseball by averaging 6.0 runs per game, ahead of the Texas Rangers, in second place at 5.7.
"It is good to pitch when you get a lot of run support," Odorizzi said. "The way we're doing it right now, I think everyone just has to keep doing the same thing they're doing right now. Wake up and repeat themselves every day."
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • firstname.lastname@example.org