3/2/2013 3:47 P.M. ET
Ray Way proves to be right way to play in MLB
Tampa Bay is all about playing hard, having fun and putting the team first
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It's called the Ray Way. It's how the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball. It's also a mindset.
It's a relaxed, player-friendly environment built around old-fashioned values like trust, communication and honesty. It's about playing hard, having fun and putting the team first.
OK, I can see you rolling your eyes. You've grown cynical. You just don't think anything is that perfect.
You would be wrong about that. Players love playing for this franchise, especially for manager Joe Maddon. As the longest-tenured Ray, Ben Zobrist, said, "When they leave here, they miss it."
Zobrist is asked if he feels blessed to be playing for the Rays.
"Blessed is an understatement," he said.
Zobrist is the right guy to put this franchise in perspective because, in a lot of ways, he represents everything the Rays hope to be, on the field and off. More on him later.
It goes beyond environment. Years from now, we may look back and understand that the Rays changed baseball forever, proving that a smart, innovative front office and a brilliant manager can overcome a lot of economic disadvantages.
In the last five years, the Rays have averaged 92 victories a season and gone to the postseason three times. During that span, their average payroll was lower than 24 other teams.
They've done it with an amazingly talented, durable pitching staff: Last season's 3.19 staff ERA was the lowest by an American League team in 22 years. The Rays have used just 15 starting pitchers the last five seasons, which is five fewer than any other team.
Tampa Bay's Minor League pipeline has kept the big league team stocked with quality, affordable arms. Even though there's magic with some of what the Rays do, there's absolutely none with the pitching staff.
In David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and others, the Rays have quality pitching depth most other teams can only dream of. Also, Maddon and Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey brilliantly maneuver their bullpen.
Offensively, the Rays do things differently. For instance, this season, Maddon will have regulars at third base (Evan Longoria), shortstop (Yunel Escobar) and center field (Desmond Jennings.)
He'll platoon at every other position, playing matchups, defensive moves and other factors compiled from the reams of data supplied by the Rays' brilliant executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, and his staff.
"That's how we are built. We have to be built that way," Maddon said. "We can't afford the large contracts with 150 games per position. Andrew and the boys do a great job of presenting all these different scenarios. That's who we are. We kind of dig it."
Maddon believes there's an advantage to doing things this way. None of his three catchers was in the starting lineup more than 80 times in 2012. His eight second basemen topped out at 46 starts. He used four starting shortstops, none for more than 68 starts.
There'll be more of the same in 2013. The Rays have 12 players in camp who've started at three or more positions and eight who've made starts in both the infield and outfield.
"I think the camaraderie exists here because nobody sits on the bench a long time," Maddon said. "We've had a good run of guys feeling frisky in August and September because they're not playing too much."
Once upon a time, Zobrist willingly played a bunch of different positions because he saw it as a good way to stay in the big leagues. Now he has turned his ability to play different positions at a high level into a nice career.
Last season, Zobrist started 59 games in right field, 47 at shortstop and 46 at second base. He hadn't played shortstop in three years when Maddon asked him to move there late in the season.
The Rays have not found another instance -- their research goes back 91 years -- in which a player started at least 46 games at three different positions. And Zobrist played all of them well.
Zobrist is penciled in to play right field and second base this season, but he will be prepared for anything.
"Ben Zobrist is that guy," Maddon said. "Zoe is all about winning. Anytime we talk to him about moving or doing different things, the first thing he'll talk about is what's best for the team. He's not just saying that and maybe saying something different to somebody else afterwards. That's not who he is."
Zobrist smiles when asked about this kind of thing. He appreciates the kind words, but he also appreciates everything about playing for the Rays.
"You just try and be an athlete," he said. "Sometimes it may look unconventional or it may not be perfect. The reality is that not a lot of what we do out there is perfect. If I can get the job done, it's a success. I just have to feel confident enough I can make the play."
In the beginning, he embraced a utility role "out of desperation to be on the club. You have to do whatever you gotta do to find at-bats and a place on the team. After doing it for a short time, I quickly realized how valuable it was, not only to our team, but to my career. It's been something I've embraced since then."
Zobrist arrived in a Trade Deadline deal with the Astros in 2006, a time when the Rays had averaged almost 100 losses in their first eight seasons. But new owner Stu Sternberg had taken over, and Friedman and Maddon were in the process of turning things around. Two seasons later, they were in the World Series, and the Ray Way was born.
"It's nice to come to a place that feels like your baseball home," Zobrist said. "There's been a culture that's been built here over the last six years that I've gotten to be part of it. It's neat to be able to start to pass that down to younger players and help them understand what it means to play the Ray Way."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.