Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

There might not be a better MLB team that punches above its weight than the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays have, in the last decade, been to the playoffs five times. This includes winning the AL East twice and even the AL Pennant in 2020. Their payroll peaked at $78.7 million in 2018 before crashing back down to an MLB-low $49 million in 2019. For 2023, Spotrac lists the Rays’ projected payroll at $69.7 million.

The answer to the team’s successes despite its frugality is simple player development. The Rays have a system that just seems to work. It’s not quite Moneyball, but pretty close.

This year, however, could be different at Tropicana Field. The AL East is easily the most competitive division in baseball and some teams, namely the Blue Jays and Yankees, made big moves to better themselves. Tampa Bay had a somewhat busy offseason, but didn’t blow anybody out of the water.

In fact, compared to the rest of the AL East teams, the Rays might be rebuilding right alongside the Red Sox. This could be a best case scenario for the Yankees, who visit the Rays late July-into-early August and then host them for three in the Bronx later that month. If we’re to believe projections, New York should be on its way to another division crown.

Except the Rays have taught every team the same lesson for years now. Underestimating them is always the first and sometimes fatal mistake.

Greatest Addition: Zach Eflin, whom we already discussed as someone the Phillies would miss very much this year. The AL East is also baseball’s hardest-hitting as well as its most competitive, and the Rays addressed it by adding a great soft contact specialist in Eflin for three years, $40 million. Shockingly, this is the richest free agent contract in Rays history.

Eflin has posted a 43% groundball rate (GB%) for his career and allowed 23.2% soft contact in 2022. He’s only cleared 100-plus innings three times in seven years and is an injury risk, but his pitching style matches what the Rays need. Still just 28 years old, Zach Eflin should prove a surprisingly good fit.

Greatest Loss: Ji-Man Choi. He entered his contract year and the Rays decided a raise from $3.2 million was too rich for them. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and settled on a $4.65 million salary for 2023. In the meantime, the Rays will start Yandy Diaz at first base.

But even though Choi is approaching age 32 and has never developed into an elite power hitter, the Rays will still miss him. He’s hit .255 with six home runs and an .803 OPS against New York in his career. Even better, he’s a .417 hitter with three homers and a 1.450 OPS when facing Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.

Diaz, by comparison, has hit .250 versus the Yankees, but with a much more modest .708 OPS.

Greatest Strength: Kevin Cash. Filling the esteemed Joe Maddon’s shoes isn’t easy and the former veteran catcher has done so seamlessly. Cash guided the Rays through a rebuild and into regular contention, posting a respectable 640-554 record in eight years.

The fact that the Rays essentially follow the old Marlins model of relying on youth and minimal veterans shows just how good Cash is at his job. He always has his players at their best despite rarely ever having the best talent. His teams rarely ever out-play their opponents, but always keep it just close enough to capitalize on a mistake and ride it to a win.

If another rebuild is on the way, Cash’s leadership in the clubhouse could make it a short one.

Greatest Weakness: For all their success, it’s hard to see what the Rays’ plan for the future is. MLB rejected owner Stuart Sternberg’s ridiculous plan to split the season between St. Petersburg and Montreal last year. In the meantime, the Rays will try and secure financing for a new stadium as part of a greater redevelopment project. It’s a nice idea on paper, but far from official.

The fact remains that the Rays have never ranked higher than 28th in average attendance in the last decade. The team wins despite a seeming lack of talent, sometimes even reaching the World Series, and still nobody goes to games. If the best solution is to just build a new ballpark near one nobody goes to already, then maybe the Rays’ problem isn’t so much a lack of vision.

Rather, perhaps the one in charge of the franchise’s vision and future is.

Are the Rays actually rebuilding in 2023? So far, it’s looking a lot like yes. Tampa Bay has a middling offense with minimal power. Their young pitching staff’s 3.41 ERA ranked fourth in MLB last year and is now being asked to carry the load again.

Meanwhile, Shane McClanahan is hoping he can stave off more shoulder trouble after it struck late last year. Tyler Glasnow was already working his way back from Tommy John surgery and now has an oblique strain. Who knows what to expect from arms like Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen a year later? What about the endless bullpen games featuring a new cast of relievers?

The Yankees are the better team on paper and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them dominate the Rays at some points this season. But it’s like we said before, this team knows how to fight and could be in full spoiler mode come those crucial August matchups.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.