New York Mets: What the Amazins can learn from the Tampa Bay Rays

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23: Manuel Margot #13 of the Tampa Bay Rays scores against Wilson Ramos #40 of the New York Mets in the third inning during their game at Citi Field on September 23, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23: Manuel Margot #13 of the Tampa Bay Rays scores against Wilson Ramos #40 of the New York Mets in the third inning during their game at Citi Field on September 23, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

The Tampa Bay Rays are doing things we could only wish the New York Mets were able to. What can the Amazins learn from them?

Though the New York Mets may soon have one of the richest men in America officially as their owner, they should look to a small-market team from Florida as a prime example of how to run a baseball team. The Tampa Bay Rays have been operating with a bottom-five payroll in all of baseball every year for the last decade. And yet, they have made the playoffs five out of the last ten years and had a shot at a World Series title against the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.

The Rays are known for essentially inventing the concept known as the “opener,” AKA a pitcher who starts a game specifically to pitch two or three innings. They can pull this off consistently during the regular season due to their strong, almost endlessly deep bullpen. The relief corps has been a consistent deficiency for the Mets over the past few seasons, especially the past couple of years. Mets fans are accustomed to having one, maybe two pitchers out of the bullpen that they trust to get big outs.

Meanwhile in Tampa, the Rays are about ten quality relief pitchers deep on any given day. In 2020, their team ERA was 3.56, second in the American League. Of their “stable of guys” who appeared in five or more games in 2020, seven of them had an ERA under 3.00, and three of them had an ERA under 2.00.

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In Queens, the Mets stumbled to a 4.98 team ERA in 2020, good enough for 12th out of 15 teams in the National League.

If there is one thing the Mets can learn from the Rays, it is that in the current era of baseball, no team can get far into the playoffs without several reliable-to-outstanding arms out of the bullpen. There is no such thing as having “too much pitching depth.”

The Rays aren’t signing all of these pitchers out of free agency, either. Many members of their current pitching staff came up through their farm system, including Blake Snell, Ryan Yarbrough, Ryan Thompson, Diego Castillo, and Josh Fleming.

Year after year, they draft quality pitching and develop it well, or shrewdly acquire quality low-cost arms from other teams.

The Rays also have several other strengths that are generally Mets weaknesses. Their team defense is always solid and remained so in 2020. They were middle-of-the-pack in the American League when it came to errors and fielding percentage, but they always seemed to pass the eye test of doing “the little things.”

While watching the Rays in 2020, I have been struck by how smooth their game is defensively and on the basepaths. They don’t run into outs on the bases. Their fielders don’t misplay balls in the infield or outfield. Their catchers block pitches in the dirt with apparent ease.

The Mets struggled in all three of those fundamental areas in 2020. If the Amazins want to succeed in the coming years, they will need to take a page from the Rays’ playbook and devote specific focus to acquiring players who are fundamentally sound while coaching their current players to improve in these areas as much as possible.

This definite need might have been why Andrés Giménez was such a breath of fresh air for the Mets in 2020. His speed, strong defense, and natural baseball instincts reminded Mets fans that a winning ballclub needs as many players like him as possible.

Even the Rays offense, without the headline-making firepower of other teams, finds ways to draw quality at-bats and score runs. In 2020, their team batting average was .238, 11th in the AL. However, their total runs scored was 6th in the league, and they finished with the best record in the AL. By contrast, the Mets in 2020 led the NL in batting average, yet they scored the 7th most runs in the league and finished tied for the third-worst record in the NL.

Part of the difference here between the two teams lies in their ability to manufacture runs. In 2020, the Rays stole 48 bases in 60 games, while the Mets stole only 20 bags. Those extra bases come in mighty handy when they lead to run-scoring singles. The Rays hit plenty of home runs too, just like every other team in baseball the past couple of years, but they managed to squeeze every ounce of run production out of their players with timely base running and sound fundamentals.

Though they have yet to actually win the World Series, the Rays perfectly embody the classic baseball saying, “pitching and defense wins championships.” In their 2020 division title-winning season, every aspect of this mantra was on display at Tropicana Field. Meanwhile, the 2020 Mets tended to embody the saying, “home runs and Jacob deGrom can only get you so far.”

Tracking Jacob deGrom's verbal commitment to greatness. Next

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Heading into 2021, the Mets need to look to the Rays as an example of exactly where to improve in order to compete in the NL East. It’s not rocket science why the Rays have been so successful the past couple of seasons; their bottomless bullpen depth and solid fundamentals has led to a well-oiled machine that consistently wins. The Mets have a perfect representation in front of them on how to win more games. Now all they need to do is orchestrate a front office around their new owner that can execute a concrete plan for success.