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The Rays are a disgrace to baseball

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Forget the Marlins. Tampa Bay’s offseason has proven the team has no interest in winning, now or in the future.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays
Stuart Sternberg should be as reviled in Florida as Derek Jeter is.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a certain baseball team in Florida that’s had a really bad offseason. This team has a history of poor management, but recently it’s sunk to a new low; instead of making a few moves to improve a roster that was close to the playoffs in 2017, its ownership decided to — oh, forget it, I’m too angry to do the bait and switch.

Yeah, the Marlins suck, but this isn’t about them, it’s about the Rays. They’re one of the most miserly clubs in MLB, and this offseason is worse than the rest — while they have a chance to build a great team, they’re refusing to spend money and destroying yet another window for contention.

Here’s a recap of some of Tampa Bay’s recent moves:

  • Trading Evan Longoria (3.1 projected fWAR* in 2018, five years of team control) to the Giants for Christian Arroyo (0.3, five years), Denard Span (0.9, one year), and prospects Matt Krook and Stephen Woods.
  • Designating for assignment Corey Dickerson (1.0 projected fWAR in 2018, two years of team control, made the 2017 All-Star team).
  • Trading Jake Odorizzi (0.9 projected fWAR in 2018, two years of team control) to the Twins for prospect Jermaine Palacios.

*All projections are from FanGraphs’ Depth Charts.

Each of these transactions looks like a net loss for the Rays. They’ve given up solid big-leaguers and gotten unproven prospects and over-the-hill has-beens in return. Why would a team that finished five games from a Wild Card spot last year get rid of these guys like this?

You and I both know the answer to that question, but I’ll say it anyway: money. Longoria, Dickerson, and Odorizzi will earn $25.75 million this year; by contrast, the Rays will pay Arroyo and Span about $11.5 million, and the rest of the players will stick to the minors. Even though these moves made the club worse, they saved a few bucks, and that’s Tampa Bay’s priority.

Let’s think about this another way. Look at these six players:

Image from MLB.com’s free agent tracker

Those are all the big-leaguers Tampa Bay has brought in this offseason — yes, all of them. They combined for 2.0 fWAR in 2017, and FanGraphs’ Depth Charts expects them to earn 4.2 fWAR in 2018.

Now, compare that to these players:

Image from MLB.com’s free agent tracker

Alex Cobb, Lucas Duda, and Logan Morrison are just three of the free agents the Rays haven’t re-signed. They accumulated 6.8 fWAR last year, and they’re projected to rack up 4.7 fWAR this year, which means they alone could give Tampa Bay the same production of those six scrubs. Yet the team hasn’t brought back Cobb, or Duda, or Morrison, and it probably never will.

You might have seen Jeff Passan’s superb article last month on the frigid hot stove. In it, he quoted an MLB official who argued against the league’s current economic system:

“Of course [the MLB economy] doesn’t make sense,” a league official concurred. “We pay you the minimum for three years and arbitration for three or four years, and then you get paid more in free agency for your decline?”

While that phrasing is overly simple, it’s true. For their first three years in MLB, players will usually earn about $550,000; each season after that, they’ll start to see a few more millions coming their way, getting raises each year in arbitration and then cashing in when they become free agents. If you’re a greedy owner, you can easily game this system — there’s no reason to spend millions on dependable veterans when you can pencil in a young guy who’s making the minimum, even if he’s an inferior player.

Most teams are just catching onto this now, but the Rays have known it for years. It’s why they traded James Shields, Ben Zobrist, Jeremy Hellickson, Jake McGee, and Drew Smyly, among others — those players all had good-to-great track records, they’d already entered arbitration or signed a big-league contract extension, and their salaries would be paid by the teams that acquired them (since they were traded in the offseason). It’s also why the Rays have allowed other teams to sign marquee free agents before inking the flotsam that remains.

These aren’t bad strategies in and of themselves. The Rays will defend themselves by pointing out that trades will usually return some talent — indeed, the Shields deal got them Odorizzi, and the McGee swap brought in Dickerson — and that it’s best to spend wisely on the free agent market and not overpay for players who are past their primes. But the Rays haven’t adopted this mindset because they’re savvy; they’ve done it because they’re cheap.

This should make things pretty clear:

Data via Baseball Prospectus

The Rays will claim they don’t spend because they’re a small-market team and they can’t afford it (never mind that there’s no such thing as a small-market team). Indeed, the Rays had the lowest revenue of any MLB franchise last year, at $205 million. They play in an unsanitary stadium in St. Petersburg, which is a long drive across the bay for fans who live in Tampa; that plays a role in their attendance continually being near or at the bottom of the league. When you don’t have people buying tickets, it’s hard to make money.

But that doesn’t justify stinginess on this level, as Orioles writer Jon Shepherd has pointed out:

In 2017, the Rays ran a $70 million payroll on $205 million in revenue, while the Marlins ran a $114 million payroll on $206 million in revenue. Thanks to the magic of revenue sharing and television deals, both Florida teams had plenty of cash, yet only one of them decided to spend it. (Obviously, that’s changed this year.)

This has been Tampa Bay’s M.O. for a while now — keep payroll tight, ride inexperienced players, and hope for the best. It’s always been lucrative, and it’s always been ignominious. But this offseason stands out as especially egregious, and contrasting the club with its much-criticized neighbor to the south makes it clear why that is.

While the Marlins’ fire sale is a travesty — maybe you caught the subtext in that first paragraph — a rebuild for them is defensible on some level: They entered this offseason with one of the worst farm systems in MLB. Given that they have to deal with the juggernaut Nationals and the up-and-coming Braves and Phillies, you could maybe justify Miami blowing it up, although you’d like to see a better return.

That’s not at all the case for Tampa Bay, though. BP and Bleacher Report both say the Rays’ minor-league system is the seventh-best in baseball. A lot of that talent is MLB-ready, too: Last year at Triple-A Durham, Brent Honeywell had a 3.64 ERA in 123 23 innings, while Willy Adames slashed .277/.360/.415 in 578 plate appearances.

For most borderline-contenders — have I mentioned that Tampa Bay was five wins away from the playoffs? — those would be the cornerstones to build around. The Rays, suffice to say, aren’t most borderline-contenders. They’d rather surround their young players with mediocrity than bring in a pricey supporting cast via free agency and trades, and when those young players get older, they’ll happily let them walk away (unless they get dealt first).

It’s abundantly clear that Tampa Bay’s ownership cares more about money than winning. That’s the common thread through all their offseason moves:

  • On the one hand, Arroyo cost the Giants half a win last season; on the other hand, the Rays will save $13 million by putting him at the hot corner instead of Longoria.
  • On the one hand, Morrison was second on the Rays with 3.3 fWAR last year; on the other hand, having C.J. Cron and his 2.2 career fWAR play first base will cost Tampa Bay $2.5 million, which was LoMo’s salary in 2017.
  • On the one hand, Dickerson is coming off a breakout All-Star campaign as a designated hitter; on the other hand, DFA’ing him means he’ll get only $1 million in termination pay, rather than his full $5.95 million salary.
  • On the one hand, Odorizzi and Cobb have anchored the Rays’ rotation for years; on the other hand… uh… maybe they can just use a four-man rotation! (Or pray that Nathan Eovaldi and Matt Andriese don’t get hurt again. Yeah, they’ll probably just do that.)

This should be the year everything changes for the Rays. The free-agency slowdown means they can bring back guys like Cobb or Morrison for cheap. With their plans to get a new stadium in Ybor City, they can draw even more fans from the greater Tampa area, who will want to go to a stadium that’s close to them (and isn’t disgusting). And the young talent in the minors means it wouldn’t just be a limited run. The Rays were one of the best teams in the AL in 2017; they could go all-in this year, and still have hope for the future.

But rather than turn things around, the Rays are cutting costs as aggressively as ever, if not more so. The face of the franchise is gone; so is two-fifths of the rotation, arguably their two best hitters, and pretty much every hope of contending in 2018. It’s more of the same from MLB’s most shameful franchise.

A few days ago, Politico reported that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has flown first class because he’s afraid of getting shouted at:

… Pruitt’s detail has been alarmed at some of the confrontations they have had to defuse while traveling in public.

As an example, Barnet recounted on incident from October at the airport in Atlanta. An individual approached Pruitt with his cell phone recording, yelling at him “‘Scott Pruitt, you’re f---ing up the environment,’ those sort of terms,” Barnet said.

In a just world, Stuart Sternberg and his cronies would experience that derision every time they set foot in the Tampa Bay area. As much as Marlins fans loathe Derek Jeter for what he’s done to their team — remember how they immediately booed him when he showed up on the Jumbotron at a Heat game? — Rays fans should despise Sternberg even more. In an offseason where pretty much every club has done less than it should, the Rays are far and away the worst offender.


Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.