Brian Cashman left no doubt how he wanted to see this year’s ALCS between the Astros and Rays turn out.
That series ended late Saturday night in a deciding Game 7, and Cashman readily admitted to having a rooting interest. He got his wish, too, as the Rays beat the Astros, 4-2, to advance to the World Series.
"When you get knocked out, you'd like to be knocked out by the ultimate world champion, so I'm hoping that Tampa can go on and do right by that fan base and finish the job," he said earlier in the week in his annual end-of-season news conference.
After beating the Yankees in five games in the best-of-five Division Series, the Rays built a three-games-to-none lead over the Astros in the ALCS before Houston won three straight to force Game 7. Then Yankees nemesis Randy Arozarena hit a two-run homer in the first inning Saturday night to give the Rays the lead for good.
Though Rays vs. Astros in the ALCS caused quite a bit of a "can’t they both lose?" reaction among Yankees fans, there was no question which team the Yankees preferred to see advance, if they were forced to choose.
By virtue of playing in the backyard of the Steinbrenner family’s adopted hometown of Tampa, the Rays have always been a franchise the Yankees have paid close attention to and generally loathe losing to, but make no mistake: On the organizational hate scale, they don’t compare to the Astros.
Not given the recent history between the Yankees and Astros, which includes losses to Houston in the wild-card game in 2015 and ALCS losses in 2017 (seven games) and 2019 (six games).
And those losses, unlike the one to the Rays, didn't prompt the Yankees to hope their conqueror finished the job. The 2017 loss, of course, received renewed attention last winter when the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing scandal, which was found to have spanned the 2017 season and part of 2018, was uncovered and punishments were handed down by Major League Baseball. According to many in the game not associated with MLB or the Astros, those penalties were not nearly harsh enough.
The Yankees, starting with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner in early February, were critical of the Astros, with many Yankees players calling into question the validity of the title Houston won in 2017 and, though it wasn’t covered in MLB’s investigation, the loss from the year before (Google "Jose Altuve" and "buzzer").
And Tampa Bay?
Though tensions have grown steadily over the last few years between the Yankees and Rays — tensions that peaked this year as Tampa Bay won eight of 10 regular-season meetings — the Yankees have a healthy respect for the way the Rays operate.
Early in his 2020 post-mortem news conference, Cashman praised the Rays, specifically manager Kevin Cash, a former Yankee, and general manager Erik Neander.
"I want to congratulate the Tampa Bay Rays and Erik Neander and Kevin Cash for, obviously, what they've accomplished thus far and hopefully for what they're about to accomplish as they move forward and try to do something that we were not capable of in 2020," Cashman said.
But what Cashman didn’t want to entertain was the notion that the Yankees should feel worse that with a prorated 2020 payroll of $84 million in this COVID-19-shortened season, they lost to a Rays team with a prorated payroll of $29 million.
"I don't think it's a payroll comparison in any way, shape or form," Cashman said. "If you strategically follow how the Rays have built their franchise, it's not something that just occurred with our payroll versus their payroll in the last year. It's been building over the course of time. Early on, when they weren't as good and their record wasn't as great, cashing in on a lot of draft picks and international money and spending it wisely and developing it properly, and then making really astute trades, like the one they did with Pittsburgh, that add to their talent level."
At the 2018 trade deadline, the Rays traded Chris Archer to the Pirates and received two cornerstones, as it turned out, pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows. It is just one of many examples of the Rays finding a way.
"This is no surprise that Tampa Bay is formidable, this is no surprise that Tampa Bay is in the position to compete for a world championship title," Cashman said. "This hasn't snuck up on anybody that's been paying attention throughout the industry. Last year, there was a lot of narrative about Yankees versus Red Sox, who's going to win the East? And I know privately, amongst others, maybe publicly, I can't remember now, telling them, whether it was our ownership or everybody else, 'Hey, the Rays, no one's mentioning the Rays. This team is coming.’ And now they're here."