While certain teams have turned the act of not spending on major league payroll into an art — if you consider losing 114 or 108 or 105 games a form of art — we can all agree that the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics don’t spend due to obvious market limitations. They don’t compete on the same financial playing field as the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers.
Yet they find ways to win. The Rays followed last year’s 90-win campaign with 96 victories and their first playoff berth since 2013. The A’s won 97 games for the second straight season and are back in the playoffs. Yes, it’s just a wild-card game for the opportunity to move on to face the powerhouse Astros, but Wednesday’s game at the Oakland Coliseum is also for the crown of best non-spender in baseball.
The Rays had an Opening Day payroll of about $69 million — 26th in the majors and actually less than they spent in 2018. They took a 90-win team, spent less and won more games. The Rays did, however, have the highest-paid player in franchise history on the roster this season. The A’s opened with a payroll of $96.8 million, 21st in the majors. Of the 11 teams with the lowest payrolls in the league, only two — the Rays and A’s — finished with winning records.
In order to do that — and get to this point — both teams had to make astute moves along the way. It’s worth noting that both teams have had continuity in the front office. Billy Beane has run Oakland’s baseball operations since after the 1997 season, and general manager David Forst has been his longtime No. 2 guy. The Rays’ duo of Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom worked their way up through the organization, first under Andrew Friedman and then under Matthew Silverman (now the team president).
Unlike what we saw this season with the likes of the Tigers, Orioles, Marlins and other teams, the A’s and Rays have never really hit rock-bottom. The A’s did lose 94 and 93 games in 2015 and 2016, but they’ve drafted in the top 10 only three times under Beane (2016 through 2018, with a high of sixth overall). Since their breakthrough season in 2008, the Rays have drafted in the top 10 once.
Here are 10 under-the-radar moves — five for each organization — that helped them get to the 2019 AL wild-card game (8 ET on ESPN, Statsast broadcast on ESPN2).
June 5, 2014: A’s draft Matt Chapman in the first round (25th pick)
The A’s had long focused on college players in the draft under Billy Beane, but heading into the 2014 draft, their previous four first-round selections had been high school players. They went back to their roots when they selected Chapman late in the first round out of Cal State Fullerton. Chapman was already viewed as a plus-plus defender at third base, but there were concerns about his hit tool and a line-drive stroke that didn’t produce much power in college. (He hit .312 his draft year with six home runs but more walks than strikeouts.) In fact, all the draft analysis at the time mentioned that Chapman hit 98 off the mound in a couple of relief appearances for Team USA, so pitching was a fallback option if the bat didn’t come around.
It did. Chapman changed his swing to add more launch angle, and though he initially struggled with strikeouts in the minors, he reached the majors in 2017, won a Gold Glove and finished seventh in the MVP voting in 2018, and posted a 6.7-WAR season in 2019 after smashing 36 home runs and continuing to play great defense. Of all the first-round picks in 2014, only Aaron Nola has so far posted more WAR than Chapman (and nobody else is close to those two).
Billy Beane traded Addison Russell to acquire Samardzija to bolster a playoff run in 2014 that ended with a crushing loss to the Royals in the wild-card game. With Samardzija under team control for one more season, the A’s flipped him for a package that included Semien, who hit .234/.300/.372 in 64 games for the White Sox. The A’s liked Semien’s athleticism and his on-base ability in the minors and gambled that he could stick at shortstop — a position the White Sox weren’t convinced he could play (he played second and third for the White Sox as a rookie).
It took some patience — Semien’s first half-season at shortstop was an error-prone disaster — but he became an average-to-plus defender at short and could win a Gold Glove this year. Semien had been a steady 2.5- to 3-win player entering 2019, but he added more power (83 extra-base hits), improved his walk rate (87 walks) and played every game, finishing third in the AL with 8.1 WAR, behind only Mike Trout and Alex Bregman.
Talk about a classic under-the-radar pickup. Smith was the primary player in this trade, with Yarbrough more of a throw-in — a lefty without a big fastball who had good numbers at Double-A and maybe projected as an up-and-down guy or possible reliever.
All he has done in his two seasons in the majors is go 27-12 with a 4.02 ERA, and though win-loss record is hardly the best way to judge a pitcher, you’d rather be 27-12 than 12-27. Yarbrough has admirably filled the role of the “bulk” guy, often coming in after the opener. He’s hardly a starter, but he chews up valuable innings and is the kind of do-whatever-it-takes pitcher that every staff needs. As an added bonus, he grew up in Florida rooting for the Rays.
Nov. 20, 2017: A’s acquire Ramon Laureano from Astros for Brandon Bailey
Laureano had been a terrific scouting discovery by the Astros, a 16th-round pick out of Northeast Oklahoma A&M College in 2014. Laureano received some attention in prospect circles after a big season in the minors in 2016, but then he struggled at Double-A in 2017, hitting .227. The Astros didn’t have room for him on their crowded 40-man roster, so instead of exposing him in the Rule 5 draft, the A’s jumped in and got him for a minor league pitcher.
Laureano reached the majors in August 2018 and helped spark the A’s to a wild card with a strong final two months. His powerful arm soon earned him regular spots on highlight reels:
The big surprise has been the bat, as he hit .288/.340/.521 with 24 home runs in 434 at-bats, giving the A’s a solid two-way player in the outfield. Bailey might yet develop for the Astros — he had a solid season at Double-A — but the A’s had struggled to fill center field since Coco Crisp left after the 2014 season, and Laureano has proven to be the fix there.
Dec. 7, 2017: A’s sign Yusmeiro Petit as a free agent
Think of all the contracts to big-name relievers that have gone bad the past couple of seasons: Brandon Morrow and Craig Kimbrel (so far) with the Cubs; Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw with the Rockies; Jeurys Familia with the Mets. The least expensive of those deals was Morrow’s two-year, $21 million deal with the Cubs — and he managed just 30⅔ innings over two seasons.
The A’s signed the rubber-armed Petit for two years and $10 million, plus a 2020 option for $5.5 million. In his two seasons with Oakland, Petit has been the biggest workhorse reliever in the majors, pitching 154 games (he led the league with 80 appearances this year) and 176 innings while going 12-6 with a 2.86 ERA. Knowing that he can’t go out and sign big-name starters, Beane has managed to build excellent bullpens the past two seasons — without spending too much of the team’s limited resources to do so. Petit has been that invaluable setup man who has anchored the pen both of his seasons in Oakland.
For a couple of years, everyone tried to get the Rays to trade Chris Archer. The Rays resisted and resisted before finally making a deal — at just the right time, in retrospect, given Archer’s poor performance with the Pirates. It looks like an absolute heist for Tampa Bay. (The Rays also got pitcher Shane Baz, a former first-round pick, in the trade.)
Meadows and Glasnow were former top-rated prospects who had fallen out of favor in Pittsburgh. Meadows kept getting hurt, and Glasnow struggled so much in the majors as a starter that the Pirates had moved him to a relief role. The Rays bet on talent. Meadows played 138 games, made the All-Star team and hit even better in the second half, finishing at .291/.364/.558 with 33 home runs. His 142 wRC+ (a park-adjusted sabermetric batting stat) ranked fifth in the AL. Glasnow stormed out of the gate, winning AL Pitcher of the Month honors in April, and though he missed most of the rest of the season with a forearm issue, he returned in September, and his potential remains sky-high.
Dec. 21, 2018: Rays sign Charlie Morton as a free agent
Morton’s two-year, $30 million contract (plus a vesting option for 2021) is small potatoes for the Yankees or Red Sox, Tampa Bay’s AL East rivals, but it was the second-largest free-agent contract in Rays history. (Greg Vaughn got a four-year, $34 million contract back in 2000.) Morton’s $15 million salary was the largest single-season payout in Rays history.
Morton was worth every penny, going 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA and 240 strikeouts in 194⅔ innings. At 35, he established career highs in wins, ERA, innings, strikeouts, OPS allowed and WAR. In a season in which home runs were flying out in bulk, Morton allowed just 15 homers, and with 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell inconsistent at times and injured at others, Morton stepped up as the staff ace and will start Wednesday’s wild-card game.
Dec. 21, 2018: Rays acquire Emilio Pagán from A’s in three-team deal
Did you miss this trade when it happened? Probably. The most interesting player involved was Jurickson Profar, who went to the A’s. Pagán had a 4.35 ERA for the A’s in 2018, but Oakland had several other relievers ahead of him in the pecking order. The Rays also had plenty of bullpen options, but given their opener strategy, they figured you can never have too many relief arms, and Pagán had a good strikeout-to-walk ratio.
In fact, the Rays were so deep on Opening Day that Pagán began the season at Triple-A Durham. At the time, manager Kevin Cash said Pagán will “be a huge part” of the team this season, but he wanted lefty Adam Kolarek as a better matchup for the first couple of series. Pagán was back up by April 17, he allowed one run over his first 20⅔ innings and 18 outings, and he eventually took over as the team’s closer, finishing 4-2 with a 2.31 ERA and 20 saves while increasing his K’s per nine from 9.1 to 12.3.
Feb. 11, 2019: A’s re-sign Brett Anderson as a free agent
The 31-year-old veteran lefty reached the majors with the A’s way back in 2009 and won 11 games in an impressive rookie season. But he had mostly battled injuries since then, making it through a full season only once (in 2015 with the Dodgers). He started 17 games with the A’s in 2018 — his second-most in a season since 2010. So who was interested in him? Pretty much no one. Too much of an injury risk.
The A’s brought him back right as spring training was kicking off, for the small total of $1.5 million, plus another $1 million in performance bonuses. Anderson managed to stay healthy all season, making 31 starts and pitching 176 innings, second on the team to that of Mike Fiers. He’s an anomaly in today’s game of strikeouts, averaging just 4.6 K’s per nine (last among the 130 pitchers with at least 100 innings), but he went 13-9 with a 3.89 ERA.
May 10, 2019: Rays purchase Travis d’Arnaud from Dodgers
You never know how a season will unfold. The Rays acquired Mike Zunino from the Mariners in the offseason to be their starting catcher. D’Arnaud began the season with the Mets but was released on May 3 after a 2-for-23 start. He signed with the Dodgers two days later and got one at-bat, and when Zunino strained his quadriceps and joined backup catcher Michael Perez on the injured list, the Rays needed another backstop. They reached out to old friend Andrew Friedman and purchased d’Arnaud for $100,000.
All he did was hit .263/.323/.459 with 16 home runs and 67 RBIs in 92 games, including a .320/.368/.590 line with runners in scoring position. With Zunino struggling, d’Arnaud started 62 games at catcher and another 16 at first base, providing a little offense behind the plate — the kind of little positives that add up when you have a lot of them.