The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the most incredible organizations in sports. Locked into a division with perennial payroll powerhouses in the Yankees and Red Sox, along with Blue Jays and Orioles teams that have carried big salaries in the past, the Rays have become a model for other franchises.
The Rays had four playoff appearances in six seasons from 2008-13 and are currently on a run of three straight postseasons. They’re also on a streak of four straight winning seasons in which their Opening Day payroll ranked 26th, 28th, 30th and 28th. Their payroll hasn’t ranked higher than 22nd since 2001. Even with a brain drain featuring front-office losses such as Andrew Friedman, Chaim Bloom and James Click, not to mention countless other assistants and analysts, the Rays have been stunningly consistent in a game that has an imbalanced financial system that punishes small-market teams.
This offseason was an easy one for the Rays, as they were already set up for success and had very little to do to get ready for another postseason push in 2022.
On a team loaded with talent, one name stands out above the rest. Wander Franco made his MLB debut last season and posted a .288/.347/.463 slash line with a .348 wOBA in just 70 games and 308 plate appearances. Franco was worth 2.5 fWAR, which ranked in the top 100 for position players with at least 300 plate appearances. He did that in his age-20 season with no experience at the MLB level and no 2020 season to use for development.
The Rays rewarded Franco with an 11-year contract extension at an average annual value of $16.55 million. It was the largest contract ever for a player with less than one year of service time, but he looks like a bona fide star. Franco’s promotion pushed out Taylor Walls and Vidal Brujan, who are two other strong homegrown talents. The Rays have an embarrassment of riches in the middle infield and just have to find positions for the others, along with a fringe top-100 prospect in Xavier Edwards.
I refer to the Rays as chameleons because they adapt to different offensive environments. On the whole in 2021, the Rays were 10th in wOBA at .322, which doesn’t sound all that impressive, but Tropicana Field is a terrible hitters’ park. The fact they were 12th in home wOBA is a testament to how well they performed. The Rays had a 10.2% BB% at home, which ranked sixth, and helped offset a .416 SLG that ranked 15th.
On the road, the Rays ranked fourth in wOBA at .323. They only walked 8.7% of the time, which still ranked ninth but was far lower than at home. There is a home bias with balls and strikes that leads to higher walk rates across the board at home, but the Rays were simply a more aggressive team on the road. In parks where they could do more damage, they finished fourth in SLG at .440 and pulled the ball at a higher rate. Their offensive philosophy changes depending on where they are. They offset the home park factor by walking more, then get into attack mode on the road.