Rays Manager Joe Maddon has led Tampa to the postseason in three of the last four years
Joe Maddon is on a roll.
He has led the Tampa Bay Rays to the postseason in three of the last four seasons. He even threw a World Series appearance in for good measure in 2008.
Those are impressive accomplishments made even more impressive when one considers that he has done this in the American League East. That's the division where the two highest payrolls and two most lucrative baseball markets in the entire country happen to reside.
The Rays are always "the other team." Except that they really aren't. The best pitching and best manager in the division are in Tampa. The best third baseman is there as well.
In spite of that, this really was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Tampa. After all they were coming off an offseason in which they lost key parts from a team that had won 96 games, the American League East crown and the American League's best record in 2010.
Yet they found themselves in the postseason again.
How Maddon got them there is a big part of why he took home the Manager of the Year award for the second time in his career earlier today.
Evan Longoria's walk-off on the final night of the regular season finally secured the wild card for the Rays.
When Tampa Bay started the season 0-6, Maddon and the Rays didn't panic. They simply continued to play and of course things improved.
When the Rays were nine games out of first place and eight-and-a-half out of the wild card on August 30th, Maddon kept the ship steady.
When the Rays were making a run and the Red Sox were still winning some games, the Rays kept plugging away.
On the final night of the season with the Rays losing 7-0 entering the bottom of the eighth inning and the Boston Red Sox beating Baltimore 3-2, the Rays were still calm cool and collected.
That's probably why they rallied for six runs in the eighth and then, down one run with two outs in the ninth, that might be why Dan Johnson (a journeyman first baseman hitting just under .120 for the season with only one home run in 2011) was able to hit the game-tying home run to send the game to extra innings.
That's where star third baseman Even Longoria would inevitably hit a 12th inning walk-off home run to send the Rays into the playoffs.
Joe Maddon keeps his team focused on the task at hand. He does't let them get too high when they're playing well or too low when they're slumping. The Rays just go out every night and play their brand of baseball and it's that brand that's gotten them to the postseason quite frequently as of late.
Maddon's style allows the Rays to make the most of the opportunities afforded to them.
Carl Crawford was considered a major loss for Tampa when he left via free agency to division rival Boston following the 2010 season
The 2010 Rays were very good. They had great pitching and also a pretty potent offense. The centerpiece of that offense was Carl Crawford; A lifelong member of the Rays who had been one of the keys to their offense since the 2003 season.
Following the 2010 season Crawford left as a free agent. Not only did he leave but he joined the division rival Red Sox as well. Crawford's departure was not the only big one on the Rays, but it was the biggest.
Carlos Pena, who had been the Rays' first baseman since the 2007 season, also left via free agency for the Cubs. In one offseason the Rays had lost their No. 1 threat on the basepaths as well as one of their top threats to clear the basepaths with a long ball.
Did it matter? Of course it did. The Rays did have some trouble scoring runs but they also got unexpected production from guys like Casey Kotchman ( .306 batting average). In addition they would end up getting added pop from free-agent signing Johnny Damon.
The Rays offense was most certainly weak. It wasn't too weak to get them to the postseason though.
Kyle Farnsworth was one of several new additions to the Rays rebuilt bullpen who performed above expectations.
The 2010 Rays had a number of strengths, among them was a very good bullpen. Anchored by closer Rafael Soriano who had 45 saves and an earned run average of 1.73, the Rays in 2010 were able to "shorten games," as the expression goes.
That means that teams facing Tampa had better hope they could muster a lead by the seventh or eighth inning or even earlier, because once the bullpen enters the game it's usually going to result in some scoreless innings.
It wasn't just Soriano that did this. Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler all had outstanding 2010 seasons. On opening day 2011, not one of these key members of the 2010 bullpen were on the Rays' roster.
Soriano had left for a set-up role in New York, Wheeler had moved up to Boston with Carl Crawford, Benoit signed a lucrative deal with Detroit and Balfour signed with the Oakland A's.
Building bullpens is difficult. The pitchers who fill in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings in major league games are almost always the guys not good enough to become starters or closers. In other words, they're the weakest guys out there. Even one good season doesn't always insure that another is on the immediate horizon.
What did the Rays do? They just grabbed four new guys who all performed quite admirably thank you very much.
Kyle Farnsworth became the closer and Brandon Gomes, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell and Juan Cruz all took on big roles as well. None of them arrived in Tampa with sky high expectations. Farnsworth in particular had been on seven different teams over the course of his 12-year career and had yet to catch on as a closer.
That didn't seem to deter Joe Maddon from inserting him into the closer role and quite simply not removing him until he gave Maddon a reason to do so. As of now, he hasn't given Maddon that reason.
In a league in which teams and managers seek to be constantly tinkering, trading and shifting players and their roles in an attempt to gain consistency from their bullpens Joe Maddon and the Rays continue to make it look easy...and not that expensive either.
Casey Kotchman has been known for a great glove for years. In 2011 his bat finally made an appearance as well.
Casey Kotchman was once a fairly bright prospect. Once. Entering 2011 he was pretty much a bench guy. Not a bad bench guy mind you but a bench player nonetheless.
When the Rays lost Carlos Pena to he Chicago Cubs in the offseason, the first base position opened up. Kotchman wasn't really supposed to compete for it, but yet there he was in mid April starting at first base. Not only was he starting but he was hitting too.
As long as he was both hitting and fielding the position very well there wasn't much reason for manager Joe Maddon to tinker with it. Kotchman didn't give him much of a reason for the remainder of the season either. He finished the season with a career high in batting average at .306. Kotchman also threw in a career high in on base percentage as well.
Kotchman's numbers were not what Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez produced, but he only cost his team $750,000 while Gonzalez cost Boston $6.3 million. Kotchman made the postseason as well.
James Shields finished third in the American League Cy Young Voting.
It would stand to reason that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, with the two top payrolls in all of baseball, would have starting rotations that are a veritable Who's Who of top pitchers in the American League.
That's not the case though. Not even close. Sure C.C. Sabathia, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are all very good starting pitchers. Ivan Nova had a really nice rookie season for the Yankees too.
The Rays' rotation featured James Shields, who finished third in the AL Cy Young voting, Jeremy Hellickson, who won the AL Rookie of The Year, and David Price, who had an "off" year in which he finished 12-13 with an ERA of 3.49 and 218 strikeouts.
The rotation was rounded out by Jeff Neimann and Wade Davis, both of whom easily would have supplanted members of the Red Sox and Yankee rotations last season.
Maddon isn't the general manager or the scouting department. He would be the first to admit how lucky he is to have that type of talent on his roster. Talent is just one part of the equation though. Managing it, motivating it, keeping that talent hungry and even working out routines that keep them healthy are all things that Joe Maddon has a hand in and that hand seems to keep guiding the Rays back to October.