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MLB

The Rays Can’t Help Themselves

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 27: Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts as he is being taken out of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the sixth inning in Game Six of the 2020 MLB World Series at Globe Life Field on October 27, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

This past weekend seemed wacky enough that nobody was going to cast even a moment’s thought about Blake Snell, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the 2020 World Series. Adam Gase is suddenly the best coach the New York Jets have ever had. The Detroit Lions were coached by the players’ dads. Stephen Curry made a million threes in a row. J.J. Watt used bad language. The Los Angeles Clippers were outscored by the Dallas Mavericks by 50 points in the first half. Thomas Bryant dunked on himself. Sam Allardyce is back screwing up everyone’s good time in the Premier League, and Lionel Messi wants to play in the United States (probably with a glamor team like Columbus or San Jose). Nobody was thinking about baseball, not even baseball people.

But no, the Rays decided that Sunday night was the perfect time for it to be known that they are about to trade Snell to San Diego for a bunch of prospects, thereby reviving the great Why Are You Taking Him Out Now controversy in the quietest corner of News Dump City.

Put another way, even though the Rays haven’t yet actually announced the deal, they couldn’t be unhappy about the timing. Snell’s final performance with Tampa was almost surely his finest and most notorious, as he left after five and a third magnificent innings because his pitch count was pushing 75. The nation was outraged at manager Kevin Cash’s hyperactive trigger finger, baseball’s advancing chase for mathematical purity, and the Los Angeles Dodgers winning, but it had all died down, as these things always do.

Until and unless a team decides, as the Rays have, that the remaining $39 million on Snell’s contract makes one of the game’s best pitchers disposable, as they disposed of Charlie Morton last month. It’s all part of baseball’s offseason of eating its own, between club-by-club layoffs to a dead free agent market to the gutting of the minor leagues. Now a plucky little team of overachievers was stripping itself down to the rebar because the newfound burdens of having the third-smallest payroll were too great and they needed to become younger and cheaper.

There is, though, one thing wrong with that picture—the part where the Rays are overachievers. In the 13 years since their previous (and only other) World Series appearance, they have the fifth best record behind only the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Red Sox. They’ve been above .500 in nine of those seasons while spending approximately $1.8 billion less on players than the Yankees. They’ve been The Little Engine That Does Its Damnedest, and losing the World Series the way they did, taking a knee to the sciences that have helped make them good, must baffle owner Stuart Sternberg and baseball ops brainiac Erik Neander.

But letting the two shining lights of their pitching staff go in the immediate wake of their playoff success still looks like they are putting the baseball behind the money yet again, and nothing tastes more brackish than that. The problem, of course, is that the Rays are merely the best thrifty team in the game and that gets you nothing without a ring. Fourteen teams have won the 21 championships of this century, Tampa not among them, and the Rays exude the notion that they are instead prouder of the fact that this latest World Series attempt cost them below $30 million. At some point the fact that they have taken Moneyball principles, tweaked them to their own needs and gone to two more World Series than Oakland matters less than the fact that they are still thought of far more for keeping their payroll down than the results of their care. And they will find, as the A’s have, that eventually people stop caring about how much they saved and ask aloud instead about what they have done.

Sunday night, the narrative was the same as it always is: a team unwilling to commit fully to a title, even if that isn’t exactly borne out by fact. They do want to win, just not enough to say, “The hell with it,” and spend that precious 30-millionth dollar, or bring back the pitcher who most encapsulated the agonies of their best season ever. And more non- or otherwise-aligned fans are far more thrilled by San Diego’s burst of ambition in accepting Snell than by Tampa’s devotion to the black.

But at least it leaked out on a snow night in Green Bay. That’s the optic that will carry Monday and beyond—not Tampa’s latest disappearance behind that thick pillar and out of public view.