Tampa Bay Rays: A Nuclear SwitzerlandS

Will Leitch will be previewing/musing on every baseball team each weekday until the start of the season. You can pre-order his book and follow him on Twitter. Today: Tampa Bay Rays.

A year ago about this time, Matt "Fuck You! [throws coffee]" Taibbi wrote another of his heavy-breathing, horse-semen-throwing drive-by sports screeds about Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. Here's an illustrative passage:

Giving a normal, red-blooded, pattern-baldness-suffering American male access to the Steinbrenner fortune and asking him to buy 25 baseball players a year in an unregulated market is no different, in any meaningful way, from handing Sarah Jessica Parker a blank check and asking her to fill a three-bedroom apartment with shoes and dresses. ... It's obscene that a job like this even exists. But for someone to have this job and fuck it up is just appalling, the kind of gross disrespect for our own good fortune that makes it hard for us Americans to look the Third World in the eye. What Brian Cashman has accomplished as GM of the Yankees over the past few years, in turning a perennial World Series champ into a third-place also-ran, is like walking into a backstage party for Led Zeppelin with a two-pound bag of coke and a 28-inch penis and failing for a whole night to get laid.

What the piece betrayed, of course, was a fundamental lack of understanding of baseball economics, but hey, who has time for such formalities when you're tossing off jokes about Led Zeppelin's ancient propensity for cocaine and rubber sexual aids the size of a baseball bat. What Taibbi was trying to say, I think, was that the Yankees have all the advantages, so if they don't win, it's a failure of creativity. He's saying that the logical extension of baseball wealth is dominance. I'm so glad he was wrong. At least something good came out of the Yankees winning the World Series.

I wonder what Taibbi thinks of the Tampa Bay Rays. It was only three years ago that a fan put up his blogger loyalty on eBay, only to have it purchased by Rays president Matthew Silverman. The joke was that you'd have to pay someone to write about the Rays — which wasn't true, obviously — and it was a joke that Silverman was in on. Eighteen months later, the Rays were in the World Series. The Rays have had this success — and as disappointing as last year was, it was still the team's second most successful in its history, by a long shot — because they have reinvented the way baseball teams are constructed in a way different and potentially more lasting than anything chronicled in Moneyball. They've done it through defense, they've done it through cold-blooded roster construction. they've done it through an endless supply of studs from the farm system. The farm system is particularly impressive considering they're constantly losing high-round draft picks because they can't sign them. Considering their payroll and (more so) their competition, the Rays have no choice but to invest massive resources and man-hours in the farm system, and even there they're hamstrung. (Taibbi can't account for this because he apparently believes baseball organizations only have 25 employees.) And still, they find a way to thrive.

They do it by being emotionless too: Carl Crawford might deserve a big contract from the team for his years of service during the down years, but with Desmond Jennings coming up, he's probably not getting one. (The Yankees will be happy to oblige him.) The Rays, because of their ballpark (a dome; not an ugly place, but still, a dome), their small fanbase and their division, can take risks without worrying about public opinion, because there is little public opinion. Silverman's fan buying was the symptom and the solution: Use the tiny resources you have to maximize every opportunity, and let the marketing folks sort it out in the end. It is freeing, being the Rays: No one's targeting you, no one's watching you and no one's noticing you. It's the perfect time to strike. Oh, and lest we forget, general manager Andrew Friedman, the architect of all this, the best general manager in the game, is only 33 years old. We've all wasted our lives.

The problem is, as always, that division. If the Rays were in any other division, they'd be perennially in the playoffs and people would be writing books about them. (Now you have to just wait for Jonah Keri's.) Instead, with the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. constantly Cold Warring, the Rays have to slip beneath the cracks. (They're like Switzerland with nuclear weapons.) It's another reason it's a shame the Rays don't have more fans: Considering how many people hate the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Rays are the logical recipient of our adoration. They're the ones who can make everybody miserable. We all win.

The Rays have the best management staff in baseball, which is good, because that staff has the most difficult job in baseball. This is a reason to cheer for them. You wonder if they look over at Brian Cashman, with his male-pattern baldness being mocked in national magazines, and imagine what it would be like to have that job. I bet they don't want it. I bet they like it right where they are. They understand how this works.