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The Rays Have Gone As Far As Guile Will Take Them

They came pretty damn close against a team that outspent them 4-to-1 on payroll. Now it’s time for Tampa Bay to pay for some players of its own.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With one out in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash walked to the mound and took out his starting pitcher. That starter, 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell, had been putting down Dodgers like Patches O’Houlihan; he’d struck out half of the 18 batters he faced, and allowed only two—including his last, Austin Barnes—to reach base. And while Snell hadn’t pitched six full innings in any of his previous 20 starts, regular season and postseason, dating back to July 2019, on Wednesday he’d thrown only 73 pitches—surely he’d have gas left in the tank.

Disaster ensued without delay. Reliever Nick Anderson gave up a double to Mookie Betts, then allowed Austin Barnes to score on a wild pitch. On the next pitch Betts scored the go-ahead—and, ultimately, series-winning—run on a fielder’s choice.

One moment, Snell was dragging the Rays kicking and screaming into Game 7; six pitches after he came out, the Dodgers had taken a lead they’d hold for the rest of the season. In the annals of World Series history, there are few managerial decisions that are as inextricably linked to a team’s terminal success or failure as Cash’s decision will be.

The Rays made it this far against a team that outspent them nearly four-to-one because of their ability to ferret out advantages that aren’t readily apparent to other teams, and their willingness to pursue those advantages even when doing so puts them at odds with the way every other team operates. It is their defining strength. But the strategy that got the Rays to Game 6 of the World Series not only couldn’t put them over the top, it may have cost them the series.

For all the commentary about Anderson’s capitulation being a black eye for “analytics” (whatever that means), the move wasn’t popular among sabermetrically minded analysts even before it went south. Even so, the logic to Cash’s move is fairly obvious.

Snell was lights-out twice through the order, but throughout his career he’s faded the deeper he’s gone into games. Pulling him before Betts, Corey Seager, and Justin Turner got a third look at him certainly looks overcautious, but starting pitchers who are “cruising” in playoff starts can plummet back to reality with alarming quickness. As for Anderson, he’d been one of the best half-dozen relievers in baseball since the moment he first pulled on a Rays jersey last August. Anderson had pitched nine times in the playoffs this year; in six of those games he’d inherited at least one base runner. The Rays won eight of those games, even though Anderson allowed at least one run on seven of those occasions.

Cash is going to wear this decision for the rest of his career—even some of his own players expressed frustration with the move after the game—but anyone who was totally shocked by it hasn’t been paying attention: This is how he’s managed all postseason. Snell uttered profanities to himself when he saw Cash coming to get him in Game 6 of the World Series.

And here he is after Cash yanked him in a similar situation in Game 6 of the ALCS a week and a half ago, dragging a stream of frustrated obscenity behind him like Pig Pen’s dust cloud. The only way to tell the two clips apart is the color of Snell’s jersey.

Did either move make sense? Well, it’s hard to say they made much less sense than using a one-inning reliever as a starter, or trading a top-100 pitching prospect for a platoon DH and a fourth outfielder named Randy Arozarena. It’s how the Rays operate.

And in this World Series, the Rays discovered that guile can take a baseball team only so far.

Because while it’s appropriate to fixate on the ill-fated pitching change, its proximity to the Dodgers’ series-winning rally obscures the other reasons the Rays came up short this postseason. In the first three rounds of the playoffs, Tampa Bay played one game less than the maximum against three teams with a combined regular-season winning percentage of just .522.

More troubling: Arozarena’s record-setting offensive breakout this season obscures the fact that Tampa Bay’s offense scored a mere 4.35 runs per game in the playoffs even with his 10 home runs. Anderson’s sixth-inning blowup in Game 6 led to only two runs, and yet it never seemed like the Rays could get back on top. Against Tony Gonsolin—who’d been ineffective all October—plus a cavalcade of relievers from an eminently hittable bullpen, the Rays managed just one run in the biggest game in franchise history.

The Rays’ mediocre offense left an exceptional pitching staff with almost no room for error, and when one of their best pitchers slipped up, the season was over.

This is a microcosm of the flaw in the Rays’ approach to roster construction. The club’s shoestring budget forces GM Erik Neander to work creatively, and thanks to an exceptional group of scouts, coaches, and analysts, the Rays have put together one of the best teams in baseball. They were able to identify Arozarena as a potential star when he couldn’t crack the lineup in St. Louis. They were able to pry Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow from the Pirates and help them realize their tantalizing but fleeting potential. They plucked Willy Adames from Detroit’s farm system as an 18-year-old and turned him into a star in the making, and they found, in an undersized college second baseman named Brandon Lowe, a future middle-of-the-order bat.

By any standard, this is exceptional work. Now imagine if they could pull off all this scouting and developmental wizardry and also run a competitive payroll. Imagine if, instead of Joey Wendle at third and Manuel Margot in right, they had Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper at those positions. They could have fit both players’ salaries into their current wage structure this year without even breaking into the top 20 in payroll. That offense might have scored more than one run in an elimination game.

If you can’t imagine what the Rays could do with a competitive payroll, don’t worry, because you don’t have to. Andrew Friedman, who built the Rays’ first World Series team in 2008, now runs the Dodgers. The Dodgers also routinely work wonders in player development—Gonsolin, Turner, Chris Taylor, Max Muncy—and fleece trade partners, as they did in prying Betts from Boston for nobody they particularly missed.

But because the Dodgers ran the second-highest payroll in MLB this year, they could hang on to their stars throughout their primes. They didn’t have to work around weaknesses on the roster because fixing them would’ve been too expensive. Six of the nine starting position players for the Dodgers in Game 6 are former All-Stars. Two of the three others—Taylor and Will Smith—posted wRC+ numbers of 131 and 163 this year, respectively. A seventh All-Star, Joc Pederson, came off the bench to pinch-hit. Assuming Arozarena is Tampa Bay’s best hitter, how many position players do the Dodgers have who are better than the Rays’ second-best hitter?

Even the Rays can speak to money’s ability to paper over the cracks. Two offseasons ago, they lavished a club-record free agent contract on Charlie Morton, who finished third in Cy Young voting in 2019 and has a 2.10 ERA and a 5-1 record in six postseason starts for Tampa Bay.

The disparity in resources did at least as much to toss this series in the Dodgers’ favor as one ill-fated pitching change. Even if money can’t buy guile, it can buy runs. And since money allowed the Dodgers to pry Friedman away from the Rays, it seems money can buy a little guile too.

Compared to the Rays’ ragtag group of castoffs and youngsters, a star-studded roster like the Dodgers’ might look a little gaudy and vulgar. But so do championship rings. Without one of those, building a very efficient runner-up must feel a little hollow.