Will The Tampa Bay Rays Success Change MLB Free Agency?

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The Tampa Bay Rays have been Major League Baseball’s best team through the first month of the 2023 season.

Even after a small two game losing streak, the Rays entered play on Thursday at 20-5, far and away the best record in the league.

Their run differential, arguably a greater measure of team strength than wins and losses, also leads baseball. And not just by a little; it’s best in MLB by over 30 runs.

Essentially, the Rays have been more than a run per game better than the league’s second best team.

Their success has come on both sides of the ball, with outstanding pitching combining with the most home runs in MLB.

According to Fangraphs, the Rays have had positive contributions defensively and on baserunning metrics. To go along with their 44% better than average hitting.

In virtually every measurable category, the team has excelled. Their bullpen leads the league in ERA, while their starters are at the top of the table in strikeout percentage.

It stands to reason that a team sitting at 20-5 would be performing well in comparative categories. But what’s most impressive is that the Rays are dominating the league with one of its lowest payrolls.

And it’s made all the more surprising considering how big spending clubs have struggled to start the season.

Tampa Bay Rays
ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA – APRIL 13: Brandon Lowe #8 celebrates with Wander Franco #5 of the Tampa Bay Rays after hitting a home run in the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field on April 13, 2023 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Rays Success Contrasts With Big Name Struggles

The San Diego Padres were widely seen as the consensus winners of the 2022-2023 offseason.

Team ownership went hard after virtually every big name free agent, before eventually landing star shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

They invested in extending key players such as Yu Darvish, Jake Cronenworth and Manny Machado. But most importantly, the team was able to plan for the return of all world hitter Fernando Tatis Jr.

Their spending sent their estimated payroll skyrocketing to $250 million this season, a level reached by only the highest spending clubs.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have consistently been among baseball’s top spenders, and despite jettisoning a few stars, still entered the year with roughly $228 million in payroll.

But after disappointing series against the Cubs and Pirates, respectively, the teams are a combined 26-27 this season.

Shockingly, the Padres offense has sputtered to start the year, as they’ve just barely outscored the woeful, 5-20 Oakland A’s.

The Rays have outscored San Diego by 58 runs, nearly 2.5 more per game. With a payroll nearly 70% lower.

The Phillies also have built up a contender through big spending. Philly brought Trea Turner in to go along with free agents like Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber. But they sit at just 13-13, seven games worse than the Rays.

Even baseball’s highest spending team, the New York Mets, haven’t been overly impressive. While they sit at 14-11, they’ve outscored opponents by just 11 runs so far. Despite investing huge sums to improve the rotation, New York has allowed 32 more runs than the Rays.

The Mets payroll, before luxury tax penalties, is roughly $360 million. Just a small $290 million gap with Tampa.

Will This Change Free Agency?

It’s still early in the season, and lots can change from now until September.

But the Rays start throws into question the belief that unlimited spending can guarantee top of the league success.

The Rays have built a contender through smart, small scale acquisitions, a farm system that churns out talent, and the ability to get the most of their pitching staff. And their international success, with Wander Franco turning into the star most expected him to become.

It’s easier said than done, which is why teams like Philadelphia and San Diego have used prospects to acquire established talent. Preferring certainty over possibility has its uses.

And despite the Rays’ success, fan support has been virtually non-existent. As it usually is.

San Diego, however, has seen attendance and ticket sales skyrocket. Partially because of a better market and stadium, but also because fans want to see big name players.

Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Tatis and others bring fans to the stadium. As good as Shane McLanahan has been, virtually no one outside of hard core fans knows who he is.

It’s much the same in Philadelphia, where attendance jumped from an average of 28,108 per game in 2022 to 39,128 this year. That’s a percentage increase of 39%. Fans want to see players they recognize.

At the end of the day, it seems unlikely that front offices view the Rays’ start as fundamentally changing free agency. Big name players with an established track record are still easier to acquire and trust than a lengthy farm system overhaul.

And there’s an argument to be made that the return on investment, dollar figure wise, is still there. Certain front offices going forward may be a bit more cautious with spending than they’d been in the past.

Or maybe ownership tells management they should look to emulate the Rays’ model. But it seems doubtful that the game will fundamentally change going forward. Especially if and when the Phillies, Padres, Mets or Dodgers go on a run later in the year.

And even more so considering Shohei Ohtani looms this offseason.

Written by Ian Miller

Ian Miller is a former award watching high school actor, author, and long suffering Dodgers fan. He spends most of his time golfing, traveling, reading about World War I history, and trying to get the remote back from his dog. Follow him on Twitter @ianmSC

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