Every spring I play out this internal dialogue where I think to myself: the Rays really can’t be that good again this season, right? The luck has to eventually run out. I’m perplexed as I pore over their roster and depth charts filled with unknown names of waiver-wire pickups and trade acquisitions, and occasionally what looks like a player on a savvy free-agent deal.
Yet, I know that while I don’t know where they managed to find these players, inevitably the Rays will find a way to win 90+ games, just as they’ve done in 10 of the last 16 seasons (including 2020, when they were on pace for that).
The Rays either have some secret underground city of Ivy League, khaki-wearing data miners or they’ve tapped into some secret source of endless black magic or ancient knowledge. I tend to believe the reality of their surplus value machine lies somewhere in between. So let’s take a look at how they do it – first by examining how they survived all the injuries to their 2023 pitching staff.
Pitching: Planning Ahead
Last year, they managed to pull out 99 wins in a season where they lost considerable innings due to injuries from Shane Baz, Jeffery Springs, Drew Rasmussen and Shane McClanahan. While the Rays don’t shoot for maximum innings pitched from their starters, they only managed a meager 175.2 IP from the aforementioned group. This type of hit from any team's rotation would normally be devastating. But the Rays found a way.
With Baz already known to miss the 2023 season due to Tommy John surgery, the Rays brought on Zach Eflin in a non-typical fashion (for them), signing him to a three-year, $40M deal for the 2023-25 seasons. This looked like a great depth signing to round out what looked like a great rotation for the Rays.
Instead, it was better than that: he finished the 2023 season with 4.8 fWAR, a 3.50 ERA, 177 IP, 119 ERA+, a 3.01 FIP, a vastly improved K/9 rate of 9.4 and a K/BB ratio of 7.75. For the remaining two seasons of his contract, our model estimates Eflin to be worth $53.2M in field value and $24.2M in surplus value. So with this savvy signing alone, the Rays are getting both significant on-field contributions and bang for the buck. If the Rays keep up their ways, he can either help them make the playoffs or be a potential trade candidate in the future.
Of course, getting a mostly healthy and productive season from Tyler Glasnow played a big part last year. From May 27th on, Glasnow gave the Rays 21 productive starts and in the process produced a career high 120 IP with 3.2 fWAR, a 3.53 ERA, 118 ERA+, a 2.91 FIP and a 12.2 K/9. With a pending expensive final season looming, in the second half Glasnow showed himself to be a top of the line pitcher and helped his stock enough to keep the Rays process churning. More on that later.
Pitching: Waiver-Wire Turnaround
Zack Littell is a compelling example of grabbing a waiver-wire claim and making him a useful piece. On May 12th, the Rays placed Drew Rasmussen on the IL and picked up Littell on waivers. In most situations this would look like a temporary roster fill. Littell was a 27-year-old journeyman with four MLB starts to his name.
Enter the Rays magic. Littell would proceed to appear in 26 games, starting 14 (some as an opener), 87 IP, 1.1 fWAR, 106 ERA+, 3.99 FIP, 7.4 K/9 and an excellent 8 K/BB ratio. Getting upwards of $9M in field value is a great outcome for a waiver-wire pickup. It’s exactly the kind of move that helps a team overcome only getting 177 innings from four of your top starters.
Position Players: Scouting for Upside Peaks
On the position player side, the Rays also scout undervalued trade targets who often blossom after they’re acquired. Consider this deal:
|Comp Pick B
They identified infielder Isaac Paredes as a target, and were willing to part with the formerly productive Meadows to get him. Since that deal, Meadows has struggled with health issues, and Paredes has delivered 6.7 fWAR, including a monster 2023 season where he hit for a 137 WRC+. And he still has four more years of control. In Detroit, Paredes had struggled to find success (with two consecutive years of negative fWAR), but the Rays somehow managed to unlock his potential.
One of the features of the Rays’ success this past decade is that they achieve their wins with incredible value on salaries to field value. In 2023 they had an estimated payroll of $79M (per Fangraphs), which ranked 27th in the league, yet managed to win 99 games in the regular season.
While the Rays have been willing to break $100M in payroll some years, you expect to see them trade players as they enter those final years of arbitration. Trading good players close to free agency has essentially been a feature of the Rays model: they acquire undervalued players, squeeze out a few good seasons from them, and flip them for a younger player with potential, starting the cycle over again. They’re a team that shines at using players during their peak surplus years and trading them before they reach free agency.
Let's take a look at a cycle focusing on how they have replenished their starting pitching:
- 2007: Traded Delmon Young for Matt Garza
- 2011: Traded Matt Garza for Chris Archer
- 2018: Traded Chris Archer for Tyler Glasnow, Shane Baz, and Austin Meadows
This leads us to this offseason. With Glasnow set to make $25M in 2024, it was a near guarantee that, coming off a strong 2023 season and his pending 2024 contract, Glasnow would be dealt.
- December 2023: The Rays traded Glasnow, OF Manuel Margot and $4M in cash to the Dodgers for RHP Ryan Pepiot & OF Jonny DeLuca. (As part of this deal the Dodgers extended Glasnow for 6 years at $135M.)
For the Rays, this is standard business. They have now continued their cycle of trading a costly and pending FA for a younger, cost-controlled version. They’re betting on Pepiot, the former top 100 prospect, to be next in the Garza/Archer/Glasnow line.
Then again, he could potentially be the next Luis Patino.
Even the Rays Miss a Few Sometimes
Like any organization, the Rays do not win or get fair value on 100% of their deals. After the 2020 season, Blake Snell was still under contract for three more seasons and owed a reasonable $39M. At the time, our model had Snell with $52.9M in surplus value. The Rays saw this as an opportunity to acquire multiple valuable pieces instead of holding on to Snell for another season or two. So they traded Snell to the Padres in a deal that looked like this (numbers indicate surplus value at the time of the trade):
This was a large – and fair – return, headlined by Luis Patino ($43.6M in surplus), Blake Hunt ($7.8M), Franciso Mejia ($3.6M) and Cole Wilcox ($5.4M). The Rays were betting on Patino to be part of their pitching factory, as the next-in-line guy. But they also acquired insurance in the form of several others who might have proven useful.
But it worked out only for the Padres. Over the past three years, Snell gave them 9.8 fWAR, capped off by his 2023 Cy Young season.
For the Rays, it was a disaster. Their estimated surplus value of $60.4M only netted them $11.9M in actual field value, because Patino turned out to be a complete bust. Mejia had the lowest value of all the players at the time of the trade, but at least delivered 1.3 fWAR during his time as a Ray, most of that in 2021 before his production dropped off.
The Rays’ pitching factory tried to develop Patino over three seasons to little avail, eventually giving up and dumping him to the White Sox for cash after his value had tanked, booking a heavy loss (ironically, Patino has since returned to San Diego). Wilcox has not yet reached the majors and is recovering from Tommy John surgery; he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and was not selected. Hunt did not have an impact with the major league team and was dealt this offseason to the Mariners for Tatum Levins ($0.7M).
To date, the Padres appear to have won this trade by a significant $40.3M in value. With only Wilcox left in the Rays’ organization, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for the gap to close much more on this deal. This was a big miss for them.
Even with misses they move on.
Not every deal is a winner and not every deal produces stars. Through the Rays’ model of drafting, trading, savvy waiver-wire pickups and value-oriented free agent deals, they continue to set an example as a front office that consistently fields a highly competitive team, and does so on low payrolls, all the while developing and maintaining a strong farm system.
One way to measure this efficiency is by looking at the Team Rankings section of our site (one of our new premium features), where the Rays rank 8th in both Majors-level surplus value and total team surplus value. But it should be noted that that’s being weighed down by the -$163M surplus value saddled on Wander Franco, which is a situation not related to his baseball value. When you remove Franco from the equation, the Rays move up to 3rd in Majors-level surplus value, and 4th in total team surplus value. That's a reflection of how well the team is run.
So while it might look like their potent offense is missing a few pieces, set to regress a little, and their rotation is light with continued injuries from Springs, McClanahan, and Rasmussen, I know it's a fool’s game to count the Rays out, or to even predict how they'll perform. I know that the hidden city of Rays wizards will masterfully auto-generate the next big value play no one else saw coming. It’s just what the Rays do, and they do it very well.
About the Author
An avid lover of baseball who will argue with you about why Teoscar Hernadez hits the most beautiful homeruns.