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Hidden treasures have led Yankees, Rays to this ALDS duel

SAN DIEGO — The Yankees are (bleeping) savages in Brian Cashman’s (bleeping) front-office suite.

The Rays have got a whole damn stable of guys who entered their organization under the radar and have emerged as vital contributors to their effort.

Yes, as disparate as these bitter opponents’ positions stand in baseball’s hierarchy — the blue-blood Yankees versus the scrappy, low-payroll Rays — which has in turn inspired some of their managers’ memorably colorful language, there’s no denying the commonality that has them here at Petco Park, facing off in this American League Division Series starting Monday:

They rank among the industry’s leaders in finding hidden treasures. Or, as a blue blood might put it, the Yankees and Rays excel at arbitrage.

“They’ve both done a good job,” longtime executive Dave Dombrowski, who most recently worked as Boston’s president of baseball operations from 2015 through last year, said in a recent telephone interview, “and I think what it’s a tribute to is the organization and the people they have in their organization to identify [talent].”

“You look for a gap between the actual value of the player and his perceived value,” said Dan Duquette, another longtime executive who most recently ran the Orioles’ baseball operations from 2011 through 2018. “That’s where these teams have done well.”

The Yankees’ Game 1 starting lineup figures to feature center fielder Aaron Hicks, third baseman Gio Urshela and first baseman Luke Voit, each of whom joined the organization with little to no fanfare and have become mainstays, and relievers Luis Cessa and Chad Green as well as outfielder Mike Tauchman also could be placed in this category. The Rays, meanwhile, will lean on guys like infielders Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle and relievers Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks, who joined their organization for reasonable returns and have blossomed. Both teams also have hit big on more traditional “Sell” transactions, with the Yankees getting Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres and the Rays landing Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows in July trade-deadline deals.

Cashman, the Yankees general manager, and his Rays equivalent, Erik Neander, both demurred when asked to discuss this component of their success, which stands as par for the course on this matter; you don’t want to show your hand to your competitors. The vanilla truth, however, is that no magic formula or wizardry exists for dominating in this field. You just have to do the work in identifying, acquiring and developing the potential asset.

“To me, I guess the common threads, first of all, would be your reports on a player,” Dombrowski said. “Any time you’d see a player that you had good reports on that was available, you’d pursue him. … You talk about a J.D. Martinez, once he cleared the waiver wires, we were making a phone call within minutes.”

That occurred in March 2014, when the Astros released Martinez after three seasons of underwhelming major league results. Dombrowski, running the Tigers at the time, pounced on Martinez — an outfielder who was in the process of dramatically remaking his swing, becoming a launch-angle pioneer — and saw him become an All-Star the next season. In February 2018, Dombrowski again landed Martinez, this time for the Red Sox — for a five-year, $110 million contract. Duquette, while running the Red Sox in 1995, selected valuable outfielder Troy O’Leary on waivers from the Brewers, for whom he had been working when Milwaukee drafted him.

The process starts, most will tell you, with an organizational culture that promotes fearlessness and patience. After all, in order to create stories like this, about turning baseball water into wine, you must make a move that initially underwhelms. Voit ranked as a virtual nonentity to the baseball public when the Yankees landed him from the Cardinals in July 2018. The Yankees’ $25,000 purchase of Urshela from the Blue Jays — six days after they traded for Voit, what a week! — generated one-line mentions, at most. The reactions to the arrivals of Hicks from the Twins and Cessa and Green from the Tigers veered to the negative, as the Yankees gave up better-known and -liked entities in catcher John Ryan Murphy (to Minnesota for Hicks) and reliever Justin Wilson (to Detroit for Cessa and Green).

Then comes the execution. Sometimes it proved a matter of simply giving a guy a chance, as with Voit, whose minor league exit velocities made him a well-known curiosity throughout Major League Baseball despite his beer-league-softball physique, or Tauchman, who credits his own maturity and improved preparation for his breakout 2019 (and who, for accuracy’s sake, regressed in 2020). Other times, the Yankees fed analytically fueled data to the player — and the organization’s coaches — with specific instructions. The Yankees encouraged Hicks to transform from a contact hitter to a power-and-patience guy, and he adjusted the position of his hands on his swing to execute that. Urshela, told he needed to (and possessed the potential to) barrel the ball more often, opened his batting stance and relied more on his legs.

For the Rays, who can’t compete in the Gerrit Cole/Giancarlo Stanton/Masahiro Tanaka arena (but did try hard in 2018-19 to sign DJ LeMahieu, who has been an absolute Yankees steal for $24 million over two years), connecting on imports becomes even more vital. Diaz, blocked by Jose Ramirez with the Indians, came over in a December 2018 three-way trade because the Rays loved his exit velocity and hoped they could make him less of a ground-ball hitter; the latter mission succeeded more in ’19 than in ’20, yet he has provided considerable offensive value in both seasons.

Fairbanks, having undergone two Tommy John surgeries, saw his fastball velocity jump by about seven miles per hour when he returned to action last year in the Rangers’ organization, working his way up to the majors for the first time. The Rays noticed enough to give up the versatile Nick Solak, whom they picked up from the Yankees in the 2018 Brandon Drury trade, for him. Tampa Bay hung with Fairbanks even when he posted a 5.11 ERA last year — his 2.89 FIP suggested that bad luck played a role — and that support paid off this year with a 2.70 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 26 ²/₃ innings.

If the Yankees possess far more room for error than the Rays, they give themselves even further leeway when they thrive at arbitrage. Said Dombrowski, whose signing of minor league free-agent reliever Ryan Brasier helped the ’18 Bosox win it all: “We’re all looking for cost-ability, no matter what your payroll is.”

Whoever prevails this week very likely will do so with the help of their hidden treasures. And then the two clubs will go back at it this winter, trying to procure more jewels. The better they perform at that tough skill, the better for this already delightful rivalry.

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