The three teams to watch this season are the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland A’s. These teams rank 26th, 25th and 29th in payroll. Conventional Wisdom says this is impossible.
These teams are all among the leaders in wins in their respective divisions. The Rays are particularly fun to watch as they have been putting on a clinic the past 8 years in how to run a franchise. The Rays play in one of the worst parks in MLB, have horrible attendance, yet they are able to compete at the highest level every year. What they seem able to do better than any team in baseball is find, groom and display the best starting pitchers in the game. They are so good, that while teams are picking up retreads and scrap heap starters, the Rays traded James Shields last year because they had too many starters, and they knew they had young guys in the farm system ready and able to compete.
Think about that for a minute. The Rays had a 30 year old pitcher who had won 87 games for the franchise, was coming off a 15-10 season, and they trade him to the Royals. Shields had pitched 6 shutouts in the past two seasons (Andy Pettite, who some seem to think is a Hall of Fame pitcher, has 4 shutouts – in his entire career), and the Rays saw fit to move him and allow Matt Moore to continue his development and Chris Archer to slide into Shields’ spot. This is something to watch, especially in the NYC market. I hear Yankee fans on sports talk radio talking about who to pick up in order to get better. The Yankee fans of today have been watching a $200 million payroll franchise paper over mistakes for 15 years. If the Yankees (or Dodgers or Mets or Red Sox) make an error, they can throw money at free agents or make a trade for a big money player. The Rays cannot do this. Neither can the A’s. The Pirates, who have been a poorly run team for last 10 years, have finally figured it out. We’ll see if it lasts.
I’ve always been a fan of Bill James, who was an outsider for 20 years. As the Fallacy of Authority was able to keep out independent thinkers like James who prove the “experts” wrong (and in some cases, it still does), we’re seeing smart people turn the Establishment on its head via the Rays franchise. Billy Beane, the subject of the book Moneyball, was the beginning, and now we see how winning can take place by bucking the trend and ignoring the Established Authorities, who for years have ridiculed people like Bill James and the number crunchers who run the Tampa Bay franchise.
Maybe some day one of the moneyed franchises will imitate the truly outside the box thinkers and not only win, but make money in a more efficient manner and more profitable result. Surely if you enjoy baseball and enjoy watching the independent minded, watch the A’s, Rays and Pirates this season.