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How the Rays became the Rays. Inside the brain trust of MLB’s most innovative team

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When the Tampa Bay Rays first tasted success, reaching the 2008 World Series after just 10 years in existence, then-manager Joe Maddon would often remind his team that the franchise was still in its infancy.

“We are where some other teams were 100 years ago,” Maddon would say. “We’re writing history. We’re the first chapters of that history that people are going to look back on.”

The Maddon-led Rays lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in that Fall Classic, and the team has still never won a championship — under him or any manager — but after all of these years, dating back to the team’s inaugural season in 1998, the time could be now to change franchise history forever.

Win or lose this week, though, the American League champion Rays have long been changing baseball history with an innovative approach to team building, led by a brain trust whose members have now spread to front offices across Major League Baseball — including to the team they just beat in the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros, and the team they’re battling now for the Commissioner’s Trophy, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Now in 2020, the brainiest baseball team in the bigs is four wins from its first title.


“Are we doing things the right way?”

Between meetings, between conference calls, this question has long bounced around the baseball operations offices of the Rays. Under the leadership of former Wall Street analyst Andrew Friedman — who in 2014, after a decade with the team, left to become the president of the Dodgers — the group developed a reputation for maximizing the potential of its players, creating a strong farm system and making shrewd trades. It helped produce stars like super-utility man Ben Zobrist and ace Chris Archer — flipping the latter a couple of seasons ago for two of the most important pieces of this year’s pennant-winning club in 6-foot-8 righty Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows.

The Rays haven’t always succeeded, particularly in an AL East that features perennial winners in the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but for them doing things the right way — in a new way — has meant embracing the opener, using extreme shifts and sometimes even a fourth outfielder. Despite a payroll that ranks 28th in MLB, ahead of just the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles, that philosophy — along with a reputation for outsmarting other teams in trades and tactics — has long brought the Rays respect. Now it’s brought them back to the World Series.

With a roster that has few, if any, household names, the hallmark of the 2020 Rays — as it has been for the club for many years — is depth.

“Working with Andrew Friedman, depth was always something that was critical to our organization,” senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager Erik Neander told ESPN.com earlier this year. “For health and also for unexpected performance in both directions. Depth is a way to have guys who can surprise you in pleasant ways. In this division, we usually don’t bully clubs with the top of our roster. It’s really about flattening the talent slope from spots five through 40, making sure we’re strong there.”

After Friedman’s departure, the unorthodox approach to franchise building and willingness to stretch the impact of analytics on the field continued with an all-star quartet of executives, including Neander. Matthew Silverman started his career at Goldman Sachs, where he helped Rays owner Stuart Sternberg structure his bid for the team before being hired as its president. Senior vice president of baseball operations (now Red Sox chief baseball officer) Chaim Bloom wrote for Baseball Prospectus before joining the Rays as an intern. Current Astros general manager James Click also rose from Baseball Prospectus writer to intern, then all the way to vice president of baseball operations with Tampa Bay. Together, they developed a front-office culture where decisions were collaborative, nontraditional ideas were embraced and negative reaction from others outside the organization was largely ignored.

“Try to appreciate the strengths a player possesses at any given moment. … You don’t necessarily know what [paths] they’re going to take, but the more options, the more possibilities, the more you have a chance for them to take that step. It’s easy on any given player to focus on what they can’t do, especially prospects.”

Rays GM Erik Neander on scouting and developing players

Not that being in St. Petersburg, Florida, hurt. While the front office sometimes faced blowback from the national media regarding some of its forward-thinking moves, the lack of the daily scrutiny found in larger markets like Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles meant more room for experimentation, according to former Rays executives — not to mention the necessity to be creative with money. That relative freedom is something Rays alums say they’ve come to appreciate after moving on to bigger markets.

In recent years, the success of Tampa Bay brought attention to Bloom, who interviewed with the Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets before taking the job in 2019 running the Red Sox. All of the final four teams in this year’s playoffs — the Astros (Click), the Braves (team president Alex Anthopoulos worked under Friedman in L.A.), the Dodgers and of course Tampa Bay — have roots and ties to the Tampa Bay organization. Now, Friedman faces off for a World Series title against a team he knows as well as anyone.

“Obviously I have close personal relationships, my closest friends, but my focus is what we’re doing here. We came back down from 3-1 and our focus is on tonight, and now our focus is four more wins,” Friedman told Tom Verducci after the Dodgers won the NLCS.

Said Click, to the Houston Chronicle, about facing his former team in the ALCS: “On a scale of zero to weird, it’s pretty weird.” Click also told the Wall Street Journal: “The ability to create your own talent is always going to be a huge mover. It’s something that the Rays obviously do exceptionally well. It’s something the Dodgers do exceptionally well.”

With smarts, the ability to fly under the radar to a degree and financial restraints that would often necessitate innovation, ideas that would start as watercooler topics — hypotheticals thrown around for fun with co-workers — have turned into radical ideas actually implemented by the Rays on the field.

One of the more recent radical ideas: Hiring baseball’s first process and analytics coach and giving him a spot in the dugout. Jonathan Erlichman, a former math major at Princeton — nicknamed J-Money by Friedman for his conspicuously sharp dressing in his early days with the team — rose from Toronto Blue Jays intern to the Rays’ director of analytics before being named to the coaching staff prior to the 2019 season.

Most famously, before the 2018 season, the Tampa Bay front office, under the leadership group of Silverman, Bloom and Neander, wondered whether having a five-man rotation and a traditional bullpen with a closer was the best way to maximize the talent of their roster.

The opener was born — and suddenly, the entire weight of an idea would fall onto the shoulders of then-35-year-old right-hander Sergio Romo. After experimenting using more under-the-radar relievers like Andrew Kittredge, Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos to start games early in the season, the Rays saw Romo, with nearly 600 appearances under his belt, as a way to legitimize the practice. Romo carried the career pedigree of a top reliever who closed out a World Series and, just as importantly, seemed open-minded about the idea.

On May 19, 2018, Romo struck out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton of the Los Angeles Angels in a perfect first inning. The Rays won the game 5-3. Romo started again the next day, throwing a scoreless 1⅓ innings, though Tampa Bay lost 5-2.

Some saw the opener as the latest savvy experiment by the analytical Rays. Other more traditionalist baseball fans criticized the team’s lack of closer and set rotation. Among the most pointed criticism came from an elite big league starter: Astros righty Zack Greinke.

“It’s really smart, but it’s also really bad for baseball,” Greinke, then with the Arizona Diamondbacks, told Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller. “There’s always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you’ll end up never paying any player what he’s worth because you’re not going to have guys starting, you’re not going to have guys throwing innings. You just keep shuffling guys in and out so nobody will ever get paid.”

It worked well enough that Tampa Bay kept the practice up for the rest of the season. That year, Tampa Bay was the only team to use an opener in the double digits, employing the strategy in 41 games. In 2019, six teams used openers in double-digit games, led by the Rays at 57 times. What started as a fringe strategy had become mainstream, particularly in the playoffs. This October, the Yankees attempted to use an opener to trick Tampa Bay in the ALDS, starting rookie righty Deivi Garcia before bringing in J.A. Happ in the second inning of Game 2 — a move that ultimately backfired.

With a rotation topped by the talents of 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell, Glasnow and Charlie Morton, the rest of the Rays’ Swiss Army knife pitching staff has been tasked with simply getting outs, regardless of situation or inning.

That philosophy has shaped the rest of the Rays’ roster.

“Try to appreciate the strengths a player possesses at any given moment,” Neander said. “Try to keep the focus there. Try to think about the paths to further development. You don’t necessarily know what they’re going to take, but the more options, the more possibilities, the more you have a chance for them to take that step. It’s easy on any given player to focus on what they can’t do, especially prospects.”

The Mariners saw Ryan Yarbrough as a soft-tossing lefty minor leaguer with little upside. The Rays saw a pitcher who, with his plus control, could be an up-and-down guy at the minimum. The Rays got Yarbrough and Mallex Smith for Drew Smyly (who promptly got injured). Meanwhile, Yarbrough added a cutter to help against righties and that’s become his best pitch as he has gone 28-16 with a 3.94 ERA over three seasons.

“The fact is that when everyone gets traded, the first thing they say is they do extremely well at developing pitchers and the fact that I come over and we were able to hone some things and figure out some ways to get better. It was the truth,” Yarbrough said. “It was a great job and you can see all of the guys who have come up through the years and had a lot of pitching success.”

“We’re good because we have good players and we really work hard to get them in the right positions to be successful and win you games. But the bottom line is that you don’t get to this point and you don’t have a record that we have without having good players.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash

The Rays acquired Nick Anderson last season from the Marlins with Trevor Richards for outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez and reliever Ryne Stanek. The Marlins figured they would cash in on a 28-year-old rookie reliever they had acquired for next to nothing from the Twins. The Rays saw a pitcher, who no matter his circuitous route to the majors (including time in independent ball) had great stuff and the potential to be one of the best relievers in baseball. Anderson has a 1.43 ERA in the regular season since that trade, with 67 strikeouts and just five walks in 37 2/3 innings.

The Pirates had grown frustrated with Meadows and Glasnow, even though both were once regarded as top-20 overall prospects. Meadows had been injury-prone in the minors and the Pirates had given up on Glasnow as a starter due to control problems. The Rays saw two extremely talented — and still young — players who perhaps just needed a change of scenery. They got the pair for Archer in 2018, in what looks like one of the best trades of the past few years.

Yandy Diaz had just one home run in 265 at-bats with Cleveland in 2017-18, plus he was blocked at third base by Jose Ramirez. The Rays saw a player who had big exit velocity, plate discipline, could play third or first and just needed to add some loft to his swing. They got Diaz in a three-way deal, giving up Jake Bauers. Diaz has hit .278/.365/.451 with a 121 OPS+ with the Rays — the perfect complementary player.

When asked about his relationship with the team’s front office, manager Kevin Cash — a former journeyman catcher for teams including the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees, who later served as a Toronto Blue Jays scout and then the Cleveland Indians‘ bullpen coach — described the dynamic as “a collaboration” noting a running conversation between the player development, scouting, front office and coaching groups, with ideas pitched — and heard — from all sides.

“That’s where Erik Neander and his staff do such a good job of bringing that all together,” Cash said. “You watch Erik and how he goes about his day and we’re around each other a lot right now in this bubble, but for every single conversation he has with a scout, he has with an R&D guy. He’s trying to pull as many thoughts together as possible so we can make really good decisions on the baseball field.”

The results of this year’s playoffs bear the fruit of this work, with outfielder Randy Arozarena tearing up fastballs left and right and part-time players like Mike Brosseau coming through with a series-defining home run against the Yankees in the ALDS. The Rays have long needed to find value between the cracks, spending significant time scouting a player’s personality and character to supplement any interest sparked by the analytics.

Cash said that the approach to roster building shaped an underdog mentality within the clubhouse, with many players overlooked by other teams finally getting an opportunity with the Rays. He typically finds that when a player joins Tampa Bay, it doesn’t take very long for him to buy into the team’s culture. And while Cash understands how analytics shaped the reputation of his team, that doesn’t define the players in his clubhouse.

“I don’t think we outsmart clubs,” Cash said. “We’re good because we have good players and we really work hard to get them in the right positions to be successful and win you games. But the bottom line is that you don’t get to this point and you don’t have a record that we have without having good players.”


Maddon’s Rays wrote the first chapters of the franchise, but Cash’s team is now trying to start a legacy by winning a World Series.

En route to the franchise’s second Fall Classic appearance, Cash removed an All-Star starter with a big-game pedigree — Morton — in Game 7 after 5 2/3 innings and 66 pitches, and runners on the corners with two outs, eliciting immediate criticism of the move on social media.

Cash brought in Anderson, trusting that Tampa Bay’s process would bring another victory after a season in which the Rays posted the AL’s best record (40-20), trusting that his best reliever would get him out of the game’s most important situation instead of allowing Morton to face Astros hitters a third time around. Anderson got the out, and three innings later, the Rays celebrated on the field at San Diego’s Petco Park, with a ticket to Arlington, Texas.

When asked after the game why he removed Morton, Cash got right to the point.

“It was pretty simple. Third time through [the order], we value that. We value our process,” he said. “We believe in our process, and we’re going to stick to that.”

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How Adam Wainwright’s love for fantasy football has benefited more than 30 charities

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It’s that time of year, when executives are checking the waiver wires and looking to make moves to improve their teams. But in this case, the front office gurus in question are baseball players themselves and their teams consist of football players.

For many baseball players, fantasy football is their offseason vice — that and a round of golf. In both cases, the players come for the trash talk and stay for the competition.

“We’re so competitive, by nature,” free agent pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “We’ll compete on who can eat their cereal the fastest. Fantasy football has provided baseball players with a fun outlet. It brings clubhouses together. Trades, trash talking, checking scores — and it keeps players close in the offseason.”

Through his charitable foundation Big League Impact, Wainwright took things to another level this fall. He commissioned a “Players Only League” that benefits not only his own foundation but 31 other charities. Each participant, 32 MLB players in all, played for the charity of his choice. The league, which conducted drafts every week with teams having $50,000 to spend on players, had two-week running matchups and is down to the final four: Wainwright is taking on Cincinnati Reds pitcher Sonny Gray in one semifinal, while former big leaguer Matt Holliday faces off against Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed in the other.

And while the competition has been fierce, the passion comes in earning money for charitable causes. Each round resulted in more money for the winning players’ charity of choice. High point totals and a “second chance” bracket provided extra ways to earn.

“That’s one of the coolest parts about it,” Gray said. “And if you’re out early, there are still ways to make money for your charity.”

Gray has raised about $15,000 so far for Project One Four, a charity created by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price to help youth organizations. Due to the pandemic, golf tournaments, celebrity cook-offs, black tie affairs and many other fundraisers have been canceled, so creativity has been needed to raise money for worthy causes. Enter Wainwright and Big League Impact, which matched each player’s $5,000 entry fee in contributing to the pool for the charities.

“We’re starting to catch some notoriety among the players,” Wainwright said. “They know we’re going to have fun and do some cool things to help out their charities. That’s my goal. To empower players around the league, who have huge platforms but don’t know how to use those platforms just yet.”

It’s the perfect mix of passions for Wainwright, who might have a fantasy football “addiction,” according to those who know him. They were only half-kidding, as Wainwright is in five leagues this year.

“Let’s see, there’s my Triple-A team from 2005,” he said. “My home league with my best friends. The clubhouse league with the Cardinals. That’s A-1 priority because you’re looking at those guys in the face every day.”

“He’s always been more concerned with his fantasy football teams than just about anything else,” Holliday, a former teammate, said of Wainwright. “He’s Mr. Tough Guy on game days [when he’s pitching], not talking to anyone, but if you have a good trade, you can talk to him about fantasy football.”

Holliday is playing for his own foundation, Homers for Health, which has raised nearly $3 million for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.

You might think Wainwright, as a free agent, would be more concerned with where he’ll play baseball next season after spending the last 15 years with the Cardinals. But a recent 40-minute phone call produced very little baseball talk. His interest, besides fantasy football, is in helping people. After hanging up, he texted back, not about who he’s starting at quarterback this week, but to emphasize the best part of the whole tournament.

“The coolest thing about everything we do is knowing that there are people around the globe who have clean water that didn’t,” Wainwright wrote. “That have a feeding program that were hungry. That have access to doctors and medicine that had no hope of help before. That have a roof over their head for the first time. And that are free from the bondage of trafficking. All because of a bunch of baseball players working together to make a difference.”

That same sentiment was echoed by the other final four participants. The baseball players have a passion for helping, while at the same time enjoying some competition against each other. The combination wasn’t lost on Holliday, a good friend of Wainwright’s, who is hopeful they meet in the final. Holliday also openly wondered how the commissioner of the league made it to the semifinals.

“I question it,” Holliday said with a laugh. “He’s in charge of this deal, but he always finds his way into the finals. If I didn’t know him so well, and his character, I would question some of the shadiness.”

That’s just a taste of the trash talking that goes hand-in-hand with fantasy football. Wainwright beat Washington Nationals star Max Scherzer in the previous round and made sure to let him know about it.

“Max is a great trash talker,” Wainwright said. “No doubt about it. We’ve had battles on the baseball field, pre and postgame. This was big for me. It’s not as important as baseball, but it’s pretty close as far as bragging rights go.

“He’s really ticked off about it. I won a side bet off of him too.”

While Wainwright, Gray and Holliday are talking some trash, Ahmed, the fourth semifinalist, wants to be known as the “quiet assassin,” though he did question why he was the 30th seed going into the tournament. Ahmed has raised $12,000 so far for Compassion International, which sponsors children in the world’s poorest countries.

“I have to take that up with Waino,” Ahmed said of being the 30th seed. “What’s that all about?”

The Diamondbacks star might feel like he’s playing with house money after beating Clayton Kershaw in the last round.

“He [Kershaw] has beaten me so many times on the field, it’s hard to count them so it feels good to get that little revenge,” Ahmed said. “I didn’t know the format at first. First couple of weeks, I went over budget every time. I had to re-edit and adjust my lineup.”

Texas Rangers pitcher Kyle Gibson was eliminated from the main bracket in Round 1, losing to former teammate Jason Castro. Gibson has continued on in the second-chance bracket as he’s making a difference for his charitable organization, Help One Now, which is building a high school in the Haitian village of Ferrier.

“It’s really cool to see the charities impacted,” Gibson said.

Asked who the best trash talker is, Gibson picked another player eliminated in Round 1.

Lance Lynn likes to talk,” Gibson said. “When he wins, he definitely lets you hear about it. He’s not doing very well in the Rangers league either, so it’ll be a little quieter in the clubhouse.”

So who does he like in to win it all and make $50,000 for his charity? (The charity of the runner-up gets $25,000.)

“[Wainwright] took out Scherzer,” Gibson said. “He was on fire all year. Waino has found his groove. I’ll go with my guy. He set [the league] up and had a big year.”

Several players kidded about the issue of Commissioner Wainwright making it to the semifinals.

“Man, it’s always a little sketchy when the host makes a deep run,” Gray said, enjoying the chance to sting his semifinal opponent. “This is the best thing to be able to trash talk about. Baseball is your career, everyone is doing their own thing and competing. But this is a different level.”

Wainwright had plenty to say on the subject of winning his own tournament, suggesting his dedication to the competition, rather than his being commissioner, has been the key.

“I don’t know how good it looks to win your own event, but I’m going to try to do it,” he said. “I don’t care about the optics because it will help our charities do a lot of great things in this world. … I won our clubhouse league last year and that’s what everyone said. ‘Oh, he sets his own rules. He does whatever he wants to win.'”

Mentioning the Cardinals’ clubhouse league gave Wainwright an opening for a shot across the bow there too.

“I’m all over [teammate] Tommy Edman right now because he has one good player, Patrick Mahomes,” Wainwright said. “Everyone else is the worst player times eight.”

Wainwright’s secret is simple. He’ll bother you until he gets what he wants.

“I’m relentless on trades,” he explained. “If I want a player and the guy says, ‘No, I’m not trading him’, by the fourth week in a row of asking, I might wear him down.”

Players find the trash talk comes much easier in fantasy football than in baseball, where livelihoods are at stake. Wainwright said there have been many times when he has faced a hitter on the same Sunday he was playing him in fantasy football, and the fantasy matchup gets much more attention. Gray loves it because nothing is off limits.

“Oh, for sure,” he said. “Everything comes up when you’re running around out there. It’ll be talked about. This is a big matchup.”

It also gives the players a bit of an understanding what baseball fans go through when they play fantasy baseball.

“I don’t take any offense to it,” Gray said. “A lot of times, baseball fantasy owners are very accurate in their statements.”

Trash talking while earning money for charity is about as good as it gets for these players. The back and forth could go on and on, but the semifinals are underway. Two weeks from now, the players only league will be down to just two.

“This is just a great way to raise awareness and money,” Ahmed said.

And what of that 30th seed?

“It’s giving me a little added motivation to win the whole thing,” he said with a laugh. “We miss that competitive outlet in the offseason, so this is good. I’m enjoying it and want to do it for years to come.”

And that’s Wainwright’s goal as well, to grow the league and earn as much money as possible, not just for his own charity but for many around baseball. If he wins his own tournament, so be it.

“It’s happened a lot over the years,” he said. “I have five leagues I play in.”

And beating Wainwright will make it that much more special for his competitors.

“That’s why you play, to beat the host, right?” Gray said. “He has the home-field advantage. And I already know it’s all over his mind so that makes it even more fun. I’ll sit back and watch Project One Four fantasy points roll up. He knows he’s going to have to bring it.”

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Sources — Mike Minor, Kansas City Royals agree to 2-year deal

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Left-handed starter Mike Minor and the Kansas City Royals are in agreement on a two-year deal that is pending a physical, sources confirmed to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

With the deal, Minor returns to the city where he revitalized his career as a reliever in 2017.

Minor, who turns 33 on Dec. 26, has since become a rotation stalwart. He was traded from the Texas Rangers to Oakland for the stretch drive as the Athletics wrapped up the American League West title last season.

Minor went 1-1 with a 5.48 ERA in his four starts in Oakland after the trade, in which Texas received two players to be named later and international slot money. Overall, he went 1-6 with a 5.56 ERA and 62 strikeouts for both teams in 2020.

His fastball velocity took a step back last season, and his propensity for giving up fly balls showed in his allowing 11 home runs in 56 2/3 innings. His average of 17.7 pitches per inning was his highest rate since his rookie season in 2010 with the Atlanta Braves.

In nine major league seasons, Minor has a 71-66 record with a 3.98 ERA and 1,048 strikeouts with the Braves, Royals, Rangers and Athletics. He missed the 2015 and ’16 seasons after having Tommy John surgery, and he was moved to the bullpen after signing with the Royals in 2017, going 6-6 with six saves and a 2.55 ERA.

The Rangers signed him prior to the 2018 season and moved him back to the rotation, and he delivered, going 26-18 in the 2018 and ’19 seasons while earning his first All-Star nod.

The Athletic was first to report the agreement.

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Philadelphia Phillies lost $145M during 2020 season, report says

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PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies lost $145 million during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season played without fans, a source told The Associated Press on Saturday.

The Phillies are searching for a general manager to replace Matt Klentak and face important decisions regarding catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius. Both players are free agents, and Phillies managing partner John Middleton said last month the league’s economic climate will impact the team’s ability to spend money in the offseason.

The Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a $330 million, 13-year deal in 2019.

Philadelphia finished 28-32 last season, one game shy of ending a nine-year postseason drought. The Phillies haven’t had a winning season since taking five straight division titles, two pennants and one World Series between 2007-11.

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