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What might the future hold for the Baby Rays?

10.27.08 at 2:07 pm ET

Obviously, the Rays have looked like a very different team thus far in the World Series against the Phillies than they did in the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. Yet whether or not Tampa Bay proves capable of erasing a 3-to-1 deficit in the World Series, there is an unmistakable message in the mere fact that they are in the Fall Classic, that they beat the Yankees and the Sox to claim the A.L. East this year, that they were indisputably the better team than Boston in the ALCS.

“We belong here. Regardless of what happens with the World Series, it means we’€™ve arrived,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said immediately after his team advanced past the Sox. “I’€™m not only talking about this year but in years to come. Obviously, we’€™re not going to sneak up on anybody anymore. I like that.”

It’s easy to see the logic of Maddon’s declaration. The Rays have a young and incredibly talented core, much of which remains under the team’s contractual control through the remainder of the decade:

Evan Longoria, 23, is signed to a six-year, $18 million deal through 2013, with three team options that could secure him for an additional three years at $30 million.
–“Big Game” James Shields, 26, just finished the first year of a four-year, $11.25 million deal that includes an extraordinary three team options that could push the contract to $37.25 million over seven seasons.
Scott Kazmir, 24, is signed from 2009-2011 for $31 million, with a team option for 2012 that would make the contract worth four years and $42 million.
David Price, 23, will earn no more than $3 million over the next three seasons, and will remain under Rays control through 2014.
Carlos Pena, 29, is signed to a three-year deal through 2010 for $24.125 million.
–Carl Crawford, 27, is in the final year of a four-year, $15.25 million deal, but the Rays hold affordable team options for 2009 ($8.25 million) and 2010 ($10 million).
–Though 24-year-old B.J. Upton is not signed beyond the 2008 season, he will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2012 season.
Matt Garza, 24, won’t be eligible for arbitration for another year, and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2013.

For the Rays to have such a talented nucleus of twentysomethings is indeed a rare phenomenon. Tampa Bay’s position players, according to Baseball-Reference.com, had an average age of 27.0 this year. Rays pitchers averaged 27.5 years of age. For Tampa to reach the World Series with such young pitchers and position players is nearly unprecedented in the free-agent era.

Since 1976, there have been nine teams with younger pitching staffs to reach the World Series. Of those, five have gotten back to the postseason in the next four years, while three have reached the World Series. Because the health of pitchers is so difficult to predict, the youth of a staff is promising, but does not necessarily guarantee future success.

It may be more significant that the Rays have the youngest position-playing core to reach a World Series since 1970. Since the free agent era began in earnest following the 1976 season, there have been eight teams whose non-pitchers were 28.0 or younger when they got to the Series. The track record of those teams suggests a likelihood of future success in Tampa:

1982 Cardinals (27.8): Won the World Series in ’82, then returned to the Series but lost in ’85 and ’87.
1985 Cardinals (27.6): Lost the World Series in ’85, and the same nucleus lost the Fall Classic again two years later.
1986 Mets (28.0): Won the World Series in ’86, returned to the playoffs but lost in the NLCS in ’88, and got a group discount on rehab for the rest of the first Bush administration.
1987 Twins (27.8): Won the World Series in ’87, and kept its young core together long enough to encourage more Homer Hanky waving with another championship in ’91.
1988 Athletics (28.0): Lost the World Series to a barely-standing Kirk Gibson and the Dodgers in ’88, won the earthquake-interrupted World Series in ’89, lost the World Series in 1990.
1991 Braves (28.0): Though the Braves enjoyed fairly significant turnover over the coming years, some members of this group helped Atlanta to chop lamely through four of the next five World Series (albeit with one lonely championship trophy in 1995). It would, however, be more accurate to identify this “generation” of young Braves as the group that got to (and lost in) the World Series in both 1991 and 1992, and that got bounced in the NLCS by the Phillies in 1993.
1995 Braves (27.9): The reconstructed Chipper generation of the Braves won the World Series in 1995 and got back to the Fall Classic the following year.
2003 Marlins (27.7): Despite a generous payroll that could fund a shopping spree–or at least a gift card–at CVS, the Marlins have not been back to the playoffs since Josh Beckett slapped Jorge Posada with a tag on a dribbler down the first-base line.

Six teams with position players age 28.0 or younger made it back to the World Series within the next four seasons, and all but one returned to the playoffs.

Given that the Rays have so much of their young talent locked up affordably for the long haul, it seems unlikely that 2008 will be the last time that Tampa Bay hosts baseball in October–unless, of course, the Rays manage to relocate to Disney World or something.

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