Appreciate how the Rays got here

Tampa Bay RaysForget the magical, out-of-nowhere season for just a second. Instead, take a moment to appreciate how the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays got here.

No big name free agents. No blockbuster trades. No big payroll. The Rays’ built their success through years of phenomenal drafting, patience, and unlike most MLB teams, had the foresight to resist overspending on overpriced talent.

The Rays’ roster is littered with examples of how a baseball team should build success.

Take Matt Garza, the starting pitcher who limited the Red Sox to just two runs in 13 innings in the ALCS. He was the top prospect in the Minnesota Twins’ organization entering the 2007 season, and the 21st-best prospect in Major League Baseball according to Baseball America. But he couldn’t crack the Twins’ starting rotation out of spring training and the team began to grow impatient. The Twins felt that they could get a quality bat in return for their star prospect, and they eventually did.

In the 2008 offseason, Minnesota packaged Garza along with Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan, and sent them to Tampa for Delmon Young, Jason Pridie and Brendan Harris. And while Garza only had a smattering of success in the regular season this year (he went 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA), he saved his best work for Boston in the postseason and wound up earning the ALCS MVP.

But the Garza trade was just one of many intelligent moves that the Rays have made throughout the years to get them where they are now.

There’s B.J. Upton, who has quickly become one of baseball’s best centerfielders at age 24. The Rays drafted him with the second overall pick in 2002 and after a couple of years in the minors, he made his debut in early August of 2004.

B.J. UptonUpton didn’t rot behind an overpriced veteran free agent because the Rays felt that they needed to spend big to win. The club allowed him to play and develop his game at the major league level and obviously the moved paid off, because he’s become a crucial part of the team’s championship run, belting seven home runs so far in the postseason.

Before Upton, there was Carl Crawford – the Rays’ second round pick in the 1999 MLB Draft. The team took the same approach with Crawford as they did Upton, and allowed him to slowly develop in the big leagues. But really, there was nothing slow about Crawford’s development since he became the eighth player to record 1,000 hits and steal 250 bases before turning the age of 27.

Against Boston in the postseason, Crawford tied an ALCS record with five hits in one game, going 5-5 in the Rays’ 13-4 Game 4 victory. He also scored three runs, stole two bases and drove in two runs.

The Rays’ draft success doesn’t end with Crawford and Upton, either. Evan Longoria (the third overall pick in the 2006 MLB Draft) made the 2008 All-Star Game and is the frontrunner for AL Rookie of the Year after batting .272 with 85 RBI and 27 home runs. He also almost single-handedly beat the Chicago White Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS by belting two home runs in his first two at bats.

The team also drafted starters James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine, who each of have notched postseason victories. In fact, Sonnanstine has won both of his postseason starts, which is incredible considering he’s making his playoff debut.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about how the Rays have successfully built their roster through sound drafting and decision-making and not talk about Scott Kazmir.

While the mainstream media chooses to focus on Garza, Upton and Crawford this postseason (and rightfully so), it’s easy to forget that Kazmir has been the rock of the Rays’ youth movement since he arrived in Tampa following a trade with the New York Mets in 2004.

July 30, 2004 is a day most Mets fans would like to forget. That’s when their team traded Kazmir and minor league pitcher Joselo Diaz to the Rays for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato. Little did the Mets know that they had just traded away a front-of-the-rotation starter for practically nothing.

Scott KazmirSince the trade, Kazmir has gone 47-37 with a 3.61 ERA, which might not seem that impressive. But remember that before this season the Rays were consistently bottom feeders in the AL East. Kazmir has often won in spite of his team, not because of it. And to put it mildly, he’s been absolutely fantastic as the team’s ace.

There are more Rays that deserve mention and praise, such as Dioner Navarro, Akinori Iwamura and Gabe Gross, but surely those players will prove how they’ve helped turn this team from nobodies into title contenders when the World Series kicks off Wednesday night.

The bottom line is that the Rays did it the right way. That’s not to say that every team that spent more than Tampa and who didn’t make the World Series did it the wrong way, but there should be a greater appreciation for a club that is knocking on the doorstep of a championship and spent just over $43 million to do so. (Even the Rays’ World Series counterparts, the Philadelphia Phillies, spent over $98 million on their payroll – 13th most in all of baseball.)

The Rays were patient in building their success and now are reaping the benefits. While it’s exciting when a team makes a big splash in free agency or pulls off a blockbuster trade, there’s just something about one waiting their turn and winning with youth.

Instead of bitching about how they can’t compete with how much the Yankees and Red Sox spend, more teams in smaller markets should take a cue from the Rays and be patient. Of course, not every team can draft and trade as well as the Rays have over the years, but it’s obvious they’re better off trying to build through their farm system than dishing out huge contracts to just one or two players and hoping a couple of individuals can win in a team sport.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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