Rays remain cream of small-market baseball crop - NBC Sports

Rays remain cream of small-market baseball crop
Smart drafting, player development has Tampa Bay primed for 5th playoff berth since '08
From left, Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Desmond Jennings celebrate a grand slam. Those three are emblematic of the Rays' remarkable success since 2008, writes Tony DeMarco.
August 21, 2012, 8:08 pm

Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 15 years. He answers questions weekly here:

Q: Which small-budget team do you think has the better chance of making the playoffs, the A's or Rays?
Steve, Las Vegas

A: Nothing against the A's, but I'll go with the Rays here. What the Rays have done over the last five seasons - beginning in 2008, when they came out of nowhere to win the AL pennant - is the most remarkable and sustained team accomplishment since the A's 1999-2003 'Moneyball' run of success.

When you match up win totals and annual payrolls, there's no team close to what the Rays have been able to accomplish since 2008 (payroll approximations from Cots Baseball Contracts):

2008$43.8 million97-65, AL pennant
2009$63.3 million84-78
2010$72.8 million96-66, Lost ALDS
2011$42.2 million91-71, Lost ALDS
2012$63.6 million68-54 through Monday

If the season ended today, the Rays would be in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons - this despite competing in the game's toughest division, against two teams with payrolls up to three times larger. Doing that once is a great accomplishment. But four times in five years is amazing.

Three quick reasons why: They draft and develop players remarkably well. The entire rotation is homegrown, and it's the best in baseball. And when a Carl Crawford leaves through free agency, they just plug in a Desmond Jennings, and the winning continues.

They are able to identify and make the best of usable skills in cheaper free-agents, keeping talent level high and costs low. Two examples this season are Fernando Rodney (the fifth primary closer in the five-year run) and Jeff Keppinger.

And you can make a strong case for Joe Maddon as the best manager in baseball; certainly among the top five.

The A's obviously have an excellent shot at the other wild-card spot, but do face a tougher remaining schedule than the White Sox, Tigers, Orioles and Angels. Beginning Sept. 3, here's the series-by-series gauntlet the A's will face: Angels, at Mariners (16-8 since the Ichiro trade), at Angels, Orioles, at Tigers, at Yankees, at Rangers, Mariners, Rangers.

The A's pitching staff is neck-and-neck with the Rays' staff in terms of overall and bullpen ERAs, but it's hard to predict a playoff spot for an offense that is either last or next-to-last in the AL in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and OPS.

And while we're on the subject of small-market teams with playoff possibilities, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in position to end their long drought, as they currently hold the second wild card spot. But it won't be easy holding off the St. Louis Cardinals or the NL West runner-up for a wild card spot along with the Braves, who have a 3.5-game wildcard cushion.

While the Pirates' remaining schedule is very favorable, their rotation has hit a tough stretch that has led to an 8-12 August. In this month, Pirates starters are 12th in the NL with a 4.53 ERA. That has dropped their season mark to a seventh-best 3.71 mark.

And if you need any more evidence that pitching is the key to winning, the top six NL staff ERAs belong to the Nationals, Dodgers, Reds, Braves, Giants and Cardinals - the other six top playoff contenders.

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Q: Do you believe the Reds have the deepest and most-deadly bullpen in baseball? If not, who ranks with them?
- Bradley Legg, Elsmere, Ky.

A: Reds relievers have an edge over other bullpens in a handful of major statistical measures, but it's very close.

Through Monday, they led all bullpens in ERA at 2.78, with the Pirates, Rays and A's bullpens in the 2.90s.

Reds relievers also lead in strikeouts per nine (thank you very much, Aroldis Chapman), and were second in opponents' on-base percentage to the Pirates, and second in opponents' batting average to the Rays.

Chapman obviously is having a breakout, dominating season for the ages, and will earn some Cy Young Award consideration. A quick look at eye-popping numbers through Monday: 1.35 ERA, 60 innings, 28 hits, 15 walks, 110 strikeouts, 16.5 strikeouts/nine innings, 0.72 WHIP.

But significant contributions also have been made by Alfredo Simon, Sean Marshall, Jose Arredondo (all with sub-3.00 ERAs), Logan Ondrusek and Sam Lecure. Jonathan Broxton's results have been mixed so far, and his eighth-inning outings will be key down the stretch and into the post-season.

We also should mention the fact that Reds starters have totaled more innings than every other rotation except the Giants and Phillies, making the bullpen's job a bit shorter each night.

Q: Why aren't agents, general managers and owners held accountable for encouraging, promoting and/or tolerating the use of performance-enhancing drugs? Aren't they clearly aware of the actions that affect their million(s)-dollar investments? Billion-dollar team, and clueless? Really?
M. Johnson, Corvallis, Ore.

rightA: The accusation that owners and general managers are even tolerating the use of PEDs by their own players (much less encouraging it) is going to be a very difficult thing to prove.

To date, commissioner Bud Selig has shown no inclination to go after teams or their front-office employees, instead placing all emphasis on the drug-testing program.

But perhaps at some point, there will be enough support for a repeat-offender penalty - by which a team with too many cases of PED-using players could be fined or otherwise penalized.

And at this point, let's face it, the prime suspect team has to be the San Francisco Giants. Besides Melky Cabrera, they recently have employed three other tainted players - Jose Guillen, Guillermo Mota and Miguel Tejada - not to mention Barry Bonds and a handful of other players who turned up in the Mitchell Report.

Agents could be easier and likelier targets, as they work for players, and therefore could face sanctions if their clients continue to turn up dirty.

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