...it's just up on a different level.
(from "Po' Boy," Love and Theft)
The Tampa Bay Rays are on a different level than just about anyone in baseball right now. They have the best record in baseball and are four games ahead of the mighty Red Sox.
This is a remarkable change from their short, brutal history. Since their inception in 1998, the Rays have managed to reach the modest 70-win mark only once. That was 2004, also the only time they did not finish last in the AL East.
Since 1998, the Rays and Royals have shared the role of American League doormat. Sure, the Royals had a brief, shining exception in 2003. But that only made the ensuing disasters sting more.
As a baseball fan, it is exciting to see a new team emerge in the AL East. Especially the ultimate underdog, the traditionally cash- and talent-poor Rays. As a Royals fan, it is heartening to see another young team rise up. But as a Royals fan, it is also a little frustrating to watch the Rays continue to rise in the East.
While the Rays were pasting the Royals last night and shutting them down tonight, I began wondering why my team was not the one in command of their division. Why my team was not the one being fawned over on Baseball Tonight, why my team was not thinking about the playoffs.
Questions like those are why God created baseball-reference.com. Using their draft records, I was able to see why Tampa is having a dream season. The Rays have built on a foundation of wise drafting, some good trades and a sprinkling of smart free agent signings.
I looked at the Rays' starting lineup, as listed on bb-ref, plus the next four position players with the most at-bats. Also, I looked at their starting rotation and two key relievers. The Rays have five players and two pitchers who were first-round picks at one time (not all by Tampa). They also have a second-round pick and a sixth-rounder. The rest are from the middle or late rounds, and three players were not drafted (international players who signed as free agents). By comparison, the Royals have three position players and three pitchers who were first-round picks.
Obviously, being a high draft pick does not ensure future success. But I think it is fair to expect that most first- and second-round picks will contribute something at the major league level. It is certainly difficult to win without those draft picks succeeding. The Royals had terrible drafts in the late 1990s and early 2000s, culminating in the 2001 disaster, when KC failed to pick a single valuable major leaguer in 50 picks.
The Rays supplemented their drafted core with some good trades, including one in which they traded a former first-rounder (Delmon Young) for a solid young starting pitcher (Matt Garza) and their starting shortstop (Jason Bartlett). Of course, the biggest deal they made was swindling the Mets out of ace pitcher Scott Kazmir, a swap which makes the Royals' Ambiorix Burgos-for-Brian Bannister deal look fair. Also, the Rays acquired catcher (and possible All-Star) Dioner Navarro, outfielder Gabe Gross and relief pitchers J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler via solid trades.
Finally, the Rays had success finding veterans on the scrap heap. Closer Troy Percival, 1B Carlos Pena, DH Cliff Floyd and reserve Eric Hinske all could have been had by anyone. Now they are all important cogs in the Rays machine.
What lessons can the Royals learn from Tampa? Well, I believe the drafts have gotten better in the last couple of years. Unfortunately, those players will probably take a few years to be major league contributors. Dayton Moore has shown an ability to improve the team through trades, although not all of them have been winners (J.P. Howell for Joey Gathright looks bad now). And while Moore's big-name free-agent signings have been at least solid, he has not quite had the knack for adding the no-names that Tampa has shown. Incidentally, that was one thing Dayton's predecessor, Allard Baird, was actually good at (see Raul Ibanez, Paul Byrd, etc.).
Perhaps the main lesson is that it is OK to trade those former high picks to fill needs. Acquiring Bartlett and bringing up Longoria solidified the Rays' infield. While it's true defensive stats are sometimes misleading, TB's shortstops have increased their range factor from 4.00 last year to 4.21 this year. The third basemen have gone from 2.38 to 2.74 and their fielding percentage has risen from .975 to .979. This has obviously helped the pitching. Through 85 games last year, Tampa had allowed 517 runs. Through 85 games this year, that has fallen to 340. Meanwhile, Tampa's offense has been almost the same, 397 runs last year to 408 this year. Defense and the pitchers who benefit from it are why Tampa is having a great season. If the Royals are offered a trade for one of those high draft picks that would improve the defense, they should definitely be willing to listen.