In preparation for a 2020 season that may or may not happen, I’ve been going around the major leagues and writing a few mean words about each team. This time, I’ll head down to where the weather is warm, and the locals don’t care much about baseball: Tampa/St. Petersburg - home of the Rays!
Brief history of the franchise
In 1998, the head honchos of Major League Baseball thought that if having one bad, poorly-attended team in Florida was a good idea, why not add a second? Thus, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were born.
We honor our inaugural 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays! https://t.co/0rStdJn5Sl— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) March 31, 2018
To almost nobody’s surprise, the team was greeted with the level of enthusiasm - and attendance - usually seen at local board of education meetings. It didn’t help that the Rays were really bad in their early years. In their first ten seasons, they finished in last place nine times. The one year they avoided the basement, they still lost over 90 games, but just happened to be out-sucked by the Blue Jays.
The team was so bad that they changed to team name to Rays, presumably in hope that fans wouldn’t realize it was the same team. The change seemed to work as the Rays made it all the way to the World Series in 2008. What happened then, you ask?
Since that season, the Rays have risen from the level of consistently putrid to consistently mediocre. They’ve made the playoffs four times, but haven’t advanced past the ALDS. But even if they had, the team’s fans would likely react with the same indifference they’ve always shown.
The #Rays finished last in attendance 6 years in a row - with a winning record.— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) May 23, 2019
The only other teams since WW2 to do that 5+ years in a row: the '46-51 Browns, '55-59 Senators & 1998-2004 Expos.
Those teams' record in those years: 549 games under .500! (h/t @romano_tbtimes
What happened in 2019
Does it matter? The Rays could have made the playoffs, and nobody would have cared besides maybe a few die hard followers of the team. As it turns out, the Rays did make the playoffs as a Wild Card, and they even won the play-in game against the Oakland A’s. Once they reached the ALDS, the Astros thankfully dismissed them so that the rest of the postseason would feature teams that actually matter.
Kevin Cash was hired as a rookie manager, and since the team posted a poor record in his second season, they’ve increased their win total of each of the past three seasons. Last year, he finished third in Manager of the Year voting, which you think would have made him universally loved by Rays fans.
Kevin Cash needs to be fired. They're not going to go anywhere under him. Yes I said it. Fire Cash before it's too late.— FLGATORFAN777(2) MATT GAY STAN ACCOUNT (@FLGATORFAN7772) August 29, 2019
The Rays are playing like they are intimidated. Like they dont believe that they belong in the post season. Its Kevin Cash's job to mentally prepare them and he has failed. If the Rays dont advance to the ALCS, Kevin Cash should be fired.— UFg8orZ_727 (@FloridaG8orZ) October 6, 2019
I guess even the Rays have their share of reactionary fans.
Blake Snell: Hero or hypocrite?
Starting pitcher Blake Snell made headlines last month for saying it wasn’t worth it to play baseball in 2020 if he was forced to take a pay cut. Some people (Bryce Harper!) sided with Snell, while others - many of whom instinctively hate when a baseball player asks for more money - called him greedy.
I realize that its natural for a person’s opinion to change as they are presented with new information. But Snell’s comments back in March, make this seem more like posturing than legitimate concern about his health.
March 11, 2020: Rays’ Blake Snell says coronavirus is overhyped: ‘If I get it, I get it’— Bryan (@blaunder) May 14, 2020
You’d think Snell would be excited about a potential 2020 season without fans in attendance. The Rays are so used to those conditions, they’d probably have a huge advantage.
BREAKING: The Tampa Bay Rays announce that they’re will be no fans in attendance at regular season games this season. Not because of the Coronavirus though.— Jake Montgomery (@JakeM0NTGOMERY) March 11, 2020
Least valuable player in 2019
Every team needs a good utility player who can fill in at most of the infield spots. Coming into the 2019 season, the Rays thought they had a good one in Daniel Robertson. They were wrong.
After a strong 2018 season, Robertson fell off both offensively and defensively last year. Yes, he can play every infield position, but it doesn’t help the team much when he plays those positions poorly, and is a negative with the bat. It’s also not good when the most memorable thing about his season was suffering an allergic reaction:
Famous faces in Rays uniforms
The Rays’ biggest claim to fame may be that they’ve had a lot of past-their-prime stars suit up for them in the twilight of their career. Here are just a few notable players to have donned Rays uniforms at some point:
Fred McGriff, Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn, Rey Ordonez, Hideo Nomo, Pat Burrell, Johnny Damon, Grady Sizemore, and Gabe Kapler (!) are some of the recognizable names who’ve passed through Tampa after their prime years were done. I guess that’s one benefit to having a team in Florida: Elderly star players will sometimes treat the team as a pre-retirement home.
Outlook for 2020
The Rays made some moves to get younger and cheaper, but it isn’t clear that they are actually any better. They certainly don’t look as good as the Yankees, but there’s a chance they could earn another Wild Card spot, and maybe even make it to yet another ALDS that nobody will really care about.