How the Tampa Bay Rays aren't just surviving but thriving with MLB's smallest payroll

OAKLAND, California -- In the middle of the visiting clubhouse at Oakland Coliseum grew the puddle of beer, a foot or so in diameter and a couple inches deep. The smoke had cleared on the Tampa Bay Rays' American League wild-card game victory over the Oakland A's but not on their celebration, which was perfumed with cigar clouds. Every team in their position -- low payroll, awful stadium, apathetic fan base, minimal recognition, entire Pringles can on their shoulder -- appreciates a moment like the one in which the Rays reveled. Not every team includes a player who will rain dance in a beer puddle.

And yet there was Ji-Man Choi, 28 years old, thicc with two C's, surrounded by teammates glad to provide a Bud Heavy shower amid his leap into the shallow pool. As Choi landed, the spent beer splattered around the room, basting Jesus Aguilar and Willy Adames and Avisail Garcia and Anthony Banda. All of whom, like Choi, started their careers in other organizations and wound up in this totally backward place, where, paradoxically, their use of analytics is humanizing.

To explain this -- explain the Rays' 5-1 victory in front of a crowd of more than 54,000 at the coliseum, explain how they found themselves back in puddle-jumping position, explain most of all how an organization that fully embraces its nerdiness captured the hearts and minds of those who might be inclined otherwise to deliver wedgies -- necessitated a glance across the room at someone admiring Choi's antics and wanting less than zero part of them.

Yandy Diaz is, by nature, quiet, guarded, reserved. He likes to hit and lift weights. This is something of an oversimplification, but not really. Conviction runs through Diaz. He's crazy enough to believe that if he didn't hit for more than two months he could jump right into a playoff game and thrive.

And yet there was Diaz, also 28, thick with a C and a K, at the plate to lead off the Rays' first postseason game since 2013, punishing a Sean Manaea fastball for a home run and smashing the down-volume button on the fans. And again, in the third inning, taking the same pitch in the same location and killing it to the same place, like a game of Clue: Yandy, with the up-and-out fastball, in right-center field.

This is material because before the Rays acquired Diaz in a trade from the Cleveland Indians over the winter, he felt stuck in a quagmire: appreciated for what he does but side-eyed for what he doesn't.

"He sees the ball really well. He hits the ball extremely hard consistently. And he swings at strikes," said Matt Quatraro, the Rays bench coach. "And, I mean, he's The Hulk. But the ability to swing at strikes, make contact and hit the ball hard -- it's not that easy."

When Diaz arrived, that's what they said to him: Yandy, you hit the ball and hit it hard, so we'd like you to hit the ball and hit it hard.

"They had trust in me to be out here and play every day," Diaz said through an interpreter. "I really thank them for that."

He was excellent until July 22, when with two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning of a blowout loss he fouled a ball off his left foot. At first, the Rays figured he would miss a few days. Then imaging showed it was fractured in a perilous spot. He had to sit, and sit for a while. Only Saturday did Diaz see his first game action, against 18-year-olds who were in Port Charlotte, Fla., for instructional league. There were no fans in the stands. The heat index was well over 100. Diaz said he felt ready.

That was enough for the Rays. They place enormous trust in players because they ask so much of them. In a world in which the highest payroll is well over $200 million and the Rays are living that $60 million life, they are forced to embrace creative solutions that narrow the gap. Some of those bleed into the players' lives and their careers, and either they're in or out. It's the quid pro quo of being a Ray: We'll help you get better, we'll support you for you, but trust us when we ask you to do something, because we're good at this. Most of them are in. Diaz was, if a touch begrudgingly, old habits hard to break and trust difficult to come by. Choi was -- perfectly illustrated by his nod of understanding when the Rays started Diaz at first base when he hadn't played there in months. Nick Anderson was. The Rays acquired him in a deadline-day trade and helped turn him into a super-reliever, with 41 strikeouts and one unintentional walk since the deadline. He came into the wild-card game in the eighth inning, allowed a hit and struck out the next four batters he faced, giving way to Emilio Pagan to secure the final two outs and set off the party.

Pagan came from another organization, too. It's almost all of them, actually. Of Tampa Bay's 25-man roster, only five players were drafted by or signed originally with the Rays. They are extraordinary at finding players with singular talents -- Diaz's exit velocity, Chaz Roe's slider, Colin Poche's fastball -- and using the talents to empower them.

Which, slowly, is becoming the expected standard in baseball, and which brings some balance back into the game. Players evermore are treated as assets -- fungible, disposable, only as good as what they can produce. If the same numbers first can help build players' careers, as the Rays have done, at least the numbers are more than cold math to help a team become more efficient. They help people, too.

It's what the Rays do: They invite you into their universe and celebrate you being your best self. Everyone is special. While 29 other teams thought Charlie Morton was too old (he's 35) or too fragile (he never had exceeded 172 innings) or too risky (give me age, give me brittleness, don't give me both), the Rays were smitten. He set career highs in starts (33), innings (194⅔) and strikeouts (240). He should finish third in AL Cy Young voting. His five innings in the wild-card game allowed home runs from Diaz, Tommy Pham and Garcia -- two others cast out by their teams -- to stand up.

Left standing in the end was Ji-Man Choi, in his puddle, his happy place. What the Rays have done -- build up a 96-win major league team in the AL East and develop a farm system deep with future major leaguers -- is awfully enviable. And what's scary is that this is only the beginning.

Travis d'Arnaud, Garcia and Eric Sogard represent the Rays' lone free agents this winter. They've got Pham and Morton under contract through 2021. Their Game 1 and 2 starters against Houston in the division series, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell, aren't free agents until after the 2023 season. Their class of 2024 is ridiculous: Anderson, All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows, shortstop Willy Adames, starter Yonny Chirinos and Jorge Castillo, one of the only homegrown guys, he of two shutout relief innings against the A's.

Oh, and one more in that class: Diaz.

"Once again, just another key piece required via trade," center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "Our front office has made a great team in here, and I love taking the field with these guys each and every day. It's so much fun to be a part of -- and we're not done. We want to keep this thing going."

They went to Houston late Wednesday to prepare themselves for the 107-win Astros. It won't be easy, but then these are the Tampa Bay Rays, and little is. All they can do is be as smart as ever and keep convincing players they know what's best. They did in the wild-card game against an A's organization awfully good at so many of the same things in its own right. This night just happened to be the Rays', and nothing -- not a formidable opponent, not the randomness of baseball and certainly not a pesky puddle of beer -- was going to stop them.