Tampa Bay Rays (1998-Present)
Also known as the Devil Rays
American League (1998-Present)
American League Champion: 2008
World Series Champion: Never
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays came into the American League the same year the Arizona Diamondbacks came into the National League. The two franchises used completely different strategies. Arizona went the free agent route, winning a division pennant in their second year and a World Championship in their fourth. Tampa Bay copied the Kansas City Royals and stocked up on young talent. Though brought up youngsters through their farm system and found surplus young talent from other organizations. It took a little longer, but by their 11th season they were competitive. With Joe Maddon at the helm they won 97 games and the American League East Title in 2008. Since then their overall record is 1,041-904, a .535 winning percentage.
Unlike the D-Backs, the Tampa Bay Rays have always struggled financially. Yearly home attendance has not exceeded 2 million since their first season, and for the last five years it has hovered around 1.2 million. Their success on the ball field is a ringing endorsement of their “Moneyball” strategy. Five playoff appearances in the last 12 years is pretty amazing, since their player payroll is the lowest in baseball.
The Tampa/St. Petersburg area had been trying to lure a Major League Franchise since the 1960s. They were on the short list for an expansion team from the beginning, but never one of the favorites. They made attempts at landing the Chicago White Sox, the Minnesota Twins, the San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers during their quest.
The Tampa/St. Pete area best chance for a team came in 1994 when Major League Baseball announced they were expanding to 30 teams in 1998. Nine cities put together bids for the two new franchises. Buffalo, Nashville, Orlando, Phoenix, Vancouver, and Washington D.C. were the other candidates. Phoenix seemed to be an obvious choice, but the second city to be chosen was not.
By the inclusion of two Florida cities it seemed clear that MLB felt that the state could easily support another team. From 1994 to 1997 the Florida Marlins had averaged over 2 million fans a season. They won the World Series in 1997. Florida got their second team. Longtime Tampa resident Vincent Naimoli led a limited partnership group that purchased the club for the expansion price of $130 million. He tried hard to keep costs down, attempting to keep the franchise financially viable. His product on the field and relationship with the fans reflected this philosophy. Neither was very good. His group sold controlling interest in the team in 2004 to the current owner, Stuart Sternberg.
The Rays future in Florida is not certain. The team has attempted to get the local communities to build them a new stadium, but the politicians have been reluctant to act. A referendum to the voters was pulled off the ballot in 2007, when fierce opposition surfaced. Other ballpark options surfaced, but the city of St. Petersburg made it clear that they would not let the team out of their contract with Tropicana Field. It doesn’t expire until 2027. The current owner, Stuart Sternberg, has made it clear that he will sell the team if his stadium demands are not met. Montreal has made noises that they were interested in bringing the team there.
Not much to work with here. Toby Hall (2000-2006) was the regular for only three years. He hit like a catcher and was okay behind the plate. The same can be said for Dioner Navarro (2006-2010), or John Flaherty (1998-2002). It’s pretty desperate work. Toby Hall (2000-2006).
In Fred McGriff’s (1998-2001, 2004) five seasons in Tampa he hit 99 home runs and drove in 359 runs. He was an All Star in 2000. He was as productive in Tampa as he was everywhere else, which means he was a valuable player to have around. Carlos Pena (2007-2010, 2012) was also there only five seasons. His totals were 163 home runs and 468 RBI. Pena also made one All Star appearance and added a Gold Glove at first base. Fred McGriff was not a Gold Glove caliber first baseman, in fact he spent considerable time as a designated hitter. The formula we use gives Carlos Pena (2007-2010, 2012) a clear advantage.
Ben Zobrist (2006-2014) by such a margin that nobody else is in the discussion.
Evan Longoria (2008-2017) by a huge margin.
Julio Lugo (2003-2006) was in Tampa for only four years, but who else you gonna take?
Carl Crawford (2002-2010) was the Rays first star. A four time All Star and a Gold Glove in the outfield. He led the American League in stolen bases four times and triples another four. While we understand his decision to leave Tampa Bay (money), his legacy would be a lot better if he had chosen to stay.
Melvin “B.J.” Upton, Jr. (2004-2012) is going to make the team somewhere. He is the second best outfielder in club history (behind Carl Crawford). The third best outfielder is also a center fielder, the current occupant Kevin Kiermaier (2013-Present). Upton was definitely the better offensive player, but he never won a Gold Glove for his defense. Kiermaier has won two. We’ll go with Kevin Kiermaier (2013-Present) in center and…
…Melvin “B.J.” Upton, Jr. (2004-2012) in right.
The weakness of the Tampa Bay Rays can be seen in the story of #1 David Price (2009-2014). The Rays made Price the the #1 pick out of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft. He lived up to expectations, winning a Cy Young Award in 2012, after finishing second two years earlier. They just didn’t have the financial means to keep him, and traded him to Detroit during the 2014 season, the season before he became a free agent.
#2 James Shields (2006-2012) had a similar road in Tampa/St. Pete as Price. Not the grade A prospect Price was, but a quality pitcher for the Rays for six consecutive seasons. They couldn’t pay him the going rate, so they traded him to the Kansas City Royals.
#3 Scott Kazmir (2004-2008) was another young starter who made his debut with the Rays. After six years in the Majors, and a record of 55-44, the 2-time All Star was shipped to the Angels in 2009.
#4 Chris Archer (2012-2018) came up with the Rays at age 23. After giving them six solid seasons, he was dealt away in his seventh (sound familiar), a year after making his second All Star appearance. Not hard to guess the future of Blake Snell (2016-Present). A first round pick for Tampa Bay in 2011, he won the American League Cy Young Award in 2018. Hampered by injuries in 2019, he has about three more years to move into the top four before his days with the Rays will end.
The current occupant Kevin Cash (2015-Present) keeps enhancing his case. He took over the team from Joe Maddon (2007-2014) just as they were losing their best players. They fell to 94 losses in 2016, but have made steady improvement since, culminating in a Wild Card spot in 2019. Despite the recent success, he still hasn’t caught his predecessor, Joe Maddon (2007-2014). Maddon managed a team that lost 101 games in his first year, and then won the American League Pennant two years later. His overall record was 754-705 with the Rays, and four playoff appearances. Pretty amazing considering they had never had a winning record in the years prior to his hiring.
We could try to make this interesting and make a case for Carl Crawford (2002-2010) or Ben Zobrist (2006-2014) or David Price (2009-2014), but the choice really isn’t that difficult. It’s Evan Longoria (2008-2017), and it’s not close. Longoria came into the league with a bang, winning Rookie of the Year, earning an All Star place, and finishing 11th in the MVP vote. The next two years were even better, with better offensive numbers and adding two Gold Gloves at third base. He was among the biggest stars in the game. He got hurt in 2011, and never got back to the level of production from before the injury. Another victim of the Rays spendthrift ways, he was dealt to the Giants in 2017. He’s best remembered today by producing the biggest hit in Ray’s Franchise history when he hit an 11th inning walk-off home run against the Yankees minutes after the Boston Red Sox had lost to the Baltimore Orioles in walk-off style on the last day of the season. That blast propelled the Rays into the post season.