Money still doesn’t ensure success in baseball. The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, the organizations with the biggest payrolls in their respective leagues, both missed the 2019 playoffs despite combining to allocate about $450 million on players. The Oakland Athletics, the model for winning with limited financial resources, will participate in October for the 10th time this century.
But no team proves this sport’s unpredictable nature better than Oakland’s opponent in the American League wild card game on Wednesday night: the Tampa Bay Rays—a team more “Moneyball” than the Moneyball A’s themselves.
The Rays opened the year with a budget of about $60 million, the lowest in the major leagues. They still managed to finish with 96 wins and earn a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2013, with a matchup in the division series against the Houston Astros on the line.
Other teams have put together brilliant seasons with even lower payrolls. The A’s, for instance, spent less than $60 million to build the roster that claimed the AL West crown in 2012. Back then, however, the average payroll registered at about $100 million. Now, that figure has risen to nearly $134 million, meaning the Rays landed at more than 55% below average.
“Baseball is a game where nothing is guaranteed, nothing is certain,” Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said in an interview last weekend. “Having enormous resources is no doubt a huge advantage, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.”
In an industry that boasts annual revenues in excess of $10 billion, the Rays stand alone as perhaps its strangest outlier.
They play half their schedule in St. Petersburg, Fla., the smallest city that hosts a MLB team. Their home, Tropicana Field, seats just 25,000 fans in the league’s only fixed-roof ballpark. They have ranked either last or second-to-last in attendance in each of the last nine seasons. Earlier this year, MLB granted them permission to explore the possibility of staging a bizarre scheme to split their time between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal.
In spite of everything, the Rays keep finding ways to compete, posting a record above .500 eight times since 2008 even though they play in a division with the Red Sox and New York Yankees. They have accomplished this by emerging as arguably baseball’s most progressive and innovative team, popularizing now-ubiquitous tactics like the defensive shift and the “opener”—the practice of starting a game with a relief pitcher.
That, coupled with their shrewd scouting and player development, have turned the Rays into an unlikely powerhouse. Their leader in home runs and RBIs, outfielder Austin Meadows, earned $557,400 in salary this season. Reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell made $1 million, while Tyler Glasnow, another top pitcher, made $566,700.