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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Low-budget Rays are producing a remarkably high yield

When high-budget Yanks swing into Tampa next week, they will face a perplexing, innovative foe who could impact their wild-card status. 

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Willy Adames, left,

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Willy Adames, left,  and centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier celebrate a win over the Baltimore Orioles and wins have come at a decent pace for a team with an improvised lineup and strategy.  Photo Credit: AP/Chris O'Meara

The Yankees have a losing record against only two teams this season.

One is the Red Sox, who left the Bronx on Thursday after clinching the AL East title. Their 105 wins are the most in the sport, and Boston’s $228-million payroll ranks No. 1 in the majors.

The other?

It’s the Rays, a small-market dynamo that has defied convention this year in every sense of the word. They relentlessly dumped salaries, jettisoned some of their best players and famously blew up the idea of a traditional five-man starting rotation to go with “openers” on many days instead.

But the most shocking part of all? It’s worked.

Somehow, a team with the lowest payroll in baseball — a paltry $68 million, more than $100 million less than the Yankees — playing in front of the fewest fans, under a dimly-lit dome, has compiled the best record since Aug. 1, at 32-14 (.696) through Friday.

In other words, there could not be a worse team for the Yankees to have left on their schedule as they try to secure home-field advantage for the Oct. 3 wild-card game. And just their luck, it’s a four-game series, which starts Monday at Tropicana Field.

As of Saturday, the Rays technically were still alive in the playoff hunt, though barely. Despite looking up at the two titans in the AL East, Tampa Bay’s 86 wins would be good enough for a share of the lead in three other divisions. At the very least, they’d also be the second wild-card team in the National League.

“We recognize the odds,” Rays’ VP of baseball operation Chaim Bloom said in a telephone interview. “But I would expect this group to keep playing as hard as it possibly can until they tell us to stop, to see what happens. These guys have a lot to play for and a lot to prove.

“In our division, it’s a challenge year in and year out. I think the one thing we’ve seen, really over the last decade, is no one would necessarily sign up for playing the type of competition the AL teams have to play on a regular basis. But it brings out the best in you. It really tests you, and sharpens you, and it’s fun to have those challenges to take stock of where you are and hopefully bring out the best in the group.”

 Heading into this season, the Rays’ motives were questioned, to put it nicely. Tanking was another word brought up when they traded Evan Longoria — the (expensive) face of the franchise — rotation stalwart Jake Odorizzi and outfielder Corey Dickerson before spring training. 

 They didn’t stop there, either. Despite staying above .500 through the end of July, the Rays further gutted the roster by trading three more pitchers — Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi and Matt Andreise — their catcher Wilson Ramos and reliever Jonny Venters in the middle of his inspired comeback. But this wasn’t so much a sell-off by the Rays as a restructuring, and rarely does such an aggressive, visionary plan yield positive results so quickly.

As Bloom explains it, the front office’s strong belief in their next generation of players, along with a sustainable model for bullpenning their way through the schedule, made this a totally logical path in their eyes. If not the only one, for a team with limited resources and financial flexibility.

“I think if you look back over the last few years, we’ve embarked on a long-term project to really build up our minor league system and our depth,” Bloom said. “And we were at a point where we felt like a lot of that depth was either already in the big leagues or about ready to bust through and get to the big leagues, and that it was time for us, in order to make the leap, to one day be where we want to be, back at the top of the division, back competing with Boston and New York, for us to transition a little more aggressively to try to sync up a young core.

“As we’ve seen this year, a lot of that group has shown themselves of being part of that.  They’ve come together, it’s clicked, they’ve jelled. A lot of guys who have won in the minor leagues are now winning in the big leagues. In order for us to compete with the beasts in this division, we know we need to have that core, and we basically set out to do anything we could do add to it.”

Stockpiling young talent is inexpensive, but in 2018, it’s shocking that Kevin Kiermaier is the highest-paid Ray with a $5.6-million salary for this season, followed by Carlos Gomez ($4 million) and Sergio Romo ($2.5 million). The rest make below $1 million, including Cy Young favorite Blake Snell (20-5, 1.97 ERA) and Joey Wendle, a Rookie of the Year contender (.302 BA, .793 OPS) who in typical Rays’ fashion has played five positions over 131 games this season.

Speaking of signature moves, the Rays also have re-engineered how to use a starting rotation — or not use one. Other than the dominant Snell, who averages nearly six innings per start, their blueprint is to go with “openers” instead, giving the first pitcher an inning or two, on zero to three days’ rest, before handling the rest of the workload with a chain of bullpen arms.

Obviously, Snell has been crucial to the success of that strategy, for both his Cy-worthy numbers and ability to gobble up innings on his particular day. But the rest of the staff has either fully embraced this unorthodox strategy or performed well in spite of it, as the Rays’ team ERA of 3.63 ranked second in the AL (behind the Astros’ 3.15) and third overall.

Tampa Bay introduced their “opener” plan way back on May 19, using Romo — a 10-year reliever with 106 saves — to make the first start of his career. He’s been the “opener” five times this season as the Rays have utilized it for 50 of their last 109 games. Whether or not they deploy it again next year still is being discussed.

“I think you could continue to see it going forward into next year,” Bloom said. “But it will all be based on our personnel. We’re going to stick to that guiding principal of let’s put everybody in a position to succeed, and let’s do what we can to win as many games as possible with the talent that we have in the group. So you can imagine a different set up where it doesn’t make as much sense to do this, where we might look to do something different. Whether it’s more or less traditional, I don’t know.”

Bloom has worked in the Rays’ front office for 14 years, so what outsiders may view as revolutionary, he’s come to understand as standard operating procedure, or how the business of baseball needs to be conducted in ultra-small-market Tampa Bay. Manager Kevin Cash, who played for both the Red Sox and Yankees during the last decade, also has proved to be the ideal dugout voice to employ these occasionally extreme measures, from balancing the bullpen to even using four outfielders the other day in Toronto.

 Cash’s successful handling of these cutting-edge strategies, as well as piloting the low-budget Rays to the brink of the playoffs, is likely to earn him the Manager of the Year award. To think that Cash could join Snell on the AL’s honor roll — with Wendle getting ROY votes — is an impressive accomplishment for a franchise that seems to be in a perpetual state of flux, always pushing the boundaries.

 The one constant? Maybe the desire to disrupt the baseball establishment, and in making up their own rules, become the envy of the sport’s big spenders. Of the 29 teams that invested more in payroll this year, only six have better records with only four of them in the top 10.

So when the Yankees roll into the Trop this week, the Rays will be looking to play giant-killer again, especially knowing they have the opportunity to mess with the playoff plans of their AL East big brother. Even if the majority of the fans in their own building will be cheering for the Yankees. From the front office to the field, the Rays love the underdog role. It works for them.

 “I think we’ve always fed off of it,” Bloom said. “That’s something that has always motivated us and driven us. We recognize that we have certain challenges, and we embrace those challenges. I think every successful group that we’ve had has played with a chip on their shoulder.”

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