Ever since their magical rise to relevancy a half-decade ago, the Tampa Bay Rays have been a very big part of the American League East. Not only have they been a perennial contender, they have achieved success their own way: by developing players from within and building rosters by realizing undervalued talent on the market. It’s not exactly a new concept; in fact it echoes a lot of the ideas put forth a decade ago in Moneyball. Still, the Rays have been one of the few organizations able to win on their own terms and without compromising their future identity.
Given what Tampa has been able to accomplish, it wasn’t all that surprising to see the team jettison starting pitcher James Shields to Kansas City to replenish a farm system that has taken a hit over the past couple of seasons. Adding guys like Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi not only beefs up the prospect crop, but it also gives the team a chance to promote a couple of potential impact players in the relative short term. The trade was a typical and genius Rays move: deal an expensive player getting ready to hit free agency and pick up young talent.
Still, if there was ever a season the Rays might have been wise to hold off in making such a move, it’s probably this one. The Rays still have plenty of talent on the roster and figure to be in the mix, but they’re also dealing with a reduced version of the AL East for the first time in their existence. Both financially stacked squads, the Yankees and the Red Sox, are uncharacteristically down and out, something we haven’t been able to say in a very long time.
Sure, the Yankees have enough fire power to stay near the top of the division. Their roster is aging quickly, Alex Rodriguez‘s future is very much in question, and no big moves were made to shore up the nagging problems we saw in last fall’s playoffs. The Red Sox look even worse. After jumping ship on a number of bloated contracts in the blockbuster that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and others to the Dodgers, the Sox were left with a team that finished the 2012 season with just 69 wins. Ownership then appeared to push for another layer of veterans to protect against another cellar-dwelling performance, but names like Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, and Mike Napoli don’t figure to equal an AL East crown in 2013.
The Orioles had a surprise ascent to postseason baseball last season, but there isn’t much of a reason to project them to finish near the win total they managed a year ago. Only the Blue Jays, who have negotiated blockbusters of their own to revamp a team that already had talent around the edges, have actually improved their chances at winning a division that previously seemed so distinctly unwinnable.
The Rays sold high on Shields to protect their future, but this may have been the rare instance when the team really just had to push for the present. It’s hard to say the trade that brought in Myers and Odorizzi was anything less than a masterstroke, but the timing wasn’t necessarily ideal. The Rays can certainly contend in 2013, but retaining Shields and bringing in some additional offense could have pushed Tampa Bay to the top of the pack with much less to worry about than usual.