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Series preview: The Rays might offer a glimpse of the Giants’ future

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Much like the Giants once did, Tampa Bay has found success doing things their own way.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

No, the Rays haven’t won three world championships in the past decade, but the past 10 years of Tampa Bay baseball has some similarities to the last 10 in San Francisco. This weekend will be a matchup of a team that has already finished its rebuild and is taking off against a team that’s trying to ride out the last few years of untradeable pricey contracts before it can begin a total rebuild of its own.

The biggest difference between the Rays and Giants, though, is emotion. The Rays are ruthless. They operate without sentiment and the cruelty of their transactions is sort of the point. They constantly find creative ways to destroy themselves to maintain a payroll owner Stu Sternberg keeps slashing, despite the team being situated in the #11 media market in the country and every team in MLB making a healthy profit.

But that’s not the apt comparison to the Giants. It’s this: from 2008-2013, the Rays played .565 ball (550-423; the second-most wins in Baseball over that time), made it all the way to the World Series in their first of four trips to the postseason in that span, and even had a book written about their neo-Moneyball philosophy: The Extra Two-Percent. They were the belles of the ball, and then they ran into the Regression Monster or Failure Curse that haunts all successful teams after a period of time.

From 2014-2017, the Rays won just 305 games, 20th in MLB, and their efforts seemed to turn from finding arbitrage in every transaction to squeezing blood from stones by innovating methods of suppressing future salary arbitration figures. But! Rather than turn this preview into a referendum on how the Rays do business, let’s instead look at the results and think about how it compares to the current state of the Giants.

From 2009-2016, the Giants won 695 games (fifth in MLB), won three World Series in four trips to the playoffs, and Showtime made them the subject of The Franchise, the #1 TV show on the planet for eight years running. There was a perfect game, three no-hitters, the best catcher in baseball (by fWAR), Madison Bumgarner (15th-best by fWAR), and all sorts of weird, beautiful, random crap. Since 2016... you know. It has been less memorable.

But the Rays crawled out from the abyss. They figured out a way forward. It wasn’t all just slashing payroll and DFA’ing good players just because they made too much money. They fleeced the Giants, found veteran alternatives for some of their young players so that they could trade those young players to further build prospect depth. The Giants don’t have to be so dramatic with their payroll, but they can be just as innovative.

Anyway, yeah, the Rays use an Opener because it’s cheaper for them to build a staff of useful relievers than sign free agent starting pitchers. The smart weak teams have advanced the Moneyball proposition and figured out how to gradually, over time, make Goliath realize it’s more financially gainful yet still just as successful on the baseball field to be David. It’s a twisted game, but it’s survival of the fittest, right?

The Giants will spend this wet weekend facing off against a team that has been five steps ahead of them for many years. Their roster isn’t made up entirely of former Giants, but the spirit of Matt Duffy hangs over this entire series. He’ll miss the series and most of April with hamstring and back issues. It’s the third time he’s hit the injured list since the Giants traded him to the Rays back in 2016 for Matt Moore.

Last year, he was mostly healthy and led the Rays in hits (148) in 132 games. The Giants traded away Christian Arroyo last offseason in exchange for Evan Longoria and the 24-year old third baseman (and former shortstop) will be on the roster this weekend.

Longoria against his former team will be a storyline, the look at the Rays’ roster, which currently features just four players 30 or older, will be another. They won 90 games last season and did it through innovation, raw talent, and efficient roster management. The Giants boast none of those things at the moment, so this will be a true meeting of haves versus the have nots.

We’ll also get our first good look at the new scoreboard.

Hitter to watch

Without Matt Duffy on the roster, the honor for best hitter falls to former Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham, whom the Rays acquired last year after Pham got on the wrong side of St. Louis’ management. But the actual one to watch is corner infielder Yandy Diaz, whom the Rays acquired in a three-way deal with the Mariners and Cleveland in the offseason. That was the one Mariners’ GM Jerry DiPoto finalized from a hospital room.

Diaz has seven hits, same as Pham, but also four walks to three strikeouts, three doubles and a home run — this home run:

Only Reyes Moronta can throw that hard, and I like his chances for not throwing it right down the middle, but good gravy, that’s some power.

Pitcher to watch

24-year old left-handed reliever/closer (if the Rays even have such a term in their org vocabulary) Jose Alvarado was signed as an amateur free agent back in 2012. Here’s a look at his stuff.at his stuff.

Prediction

It took the Rockies 11 innings of shutout baseball to finally beat the Rays in their three-game series earlier this week. This will be the first long road trip of the season for Tampa Bay, a three city trip that dots the country — San Francisco, Chicago, and then Toronto. That’s weird travel, but they had an off day to prepare for this weekend’s series, so the Giants aren’t catching them travel weary or at the end of the trip, which doesn’t bode well for their home opening series.

On paper, the Rays should win this series easily with a high probability of a sweep; but, the Giants showed some life against the Dodgers and even a couple of times against the Padres, so it’s not ridiculous to predict that the Rays will win only two of the three games.