Five years ago, the Rays traded David Price. Nothing about this was particularly surprising; the Rays were in the midst of a tear-down that would see the core of their 2008 pennant-winning team move onward, from Ben Zobrist just a year later, to James Shields two years prior, all the way up to 2017 when even Evan Longoria was sent out west.
Price made the most sense though because he obviously had the most trade value, and his final two arbitration years summed up to a massive $33 million. For a team that had a payroll of approximately $77 million, that would essentially be 20% of their player expenditure in a single player of which he would not be part of a contending crew.
So, he moved. This was treated more like a law of nature than a very calculated decision, but I will for the sake of this article grant the Rays the plausible deniability due to their unique situation; with a poor stadium deal, low attendance, and a TV deal that did not become lucrative until just two years ago, the cyclical nature of roster development is perfectly natural.
Then came the rest of the league. While it’s taken as a given that teams like the Rays or Athletics will accrue prospects, build up a good crew, and then try to move those more expensive players for spare parts later in their arbitration cycle, it really wasn’t in the DNA of the big market teams to do the same. Hell, the 2013 Yankees came under intense pressure to deal Robinson Cano, which could have accelerated their rebuild even more than it already was by the Aroldis Chapman deal, for example, but they held firm that they would keep him until the end of the still-failed season.
Now it is nearly a given that a star player on a not-guaranteed-to-win club will be dealt if they have a year or so of team control left. The first I’m speaking about, of course, is Mookie Betts. It was declared by Ken Rosenthal that, of a Betts trade, “the only question is when and where,” which as I’ll get into is a disgrace.
Remember, Boston sent former GM Dave Dombrowski, among issues related to front office cohesion, packing due to his reduction of the Red Sox coffers, not because he wasn’t successful. He did put together one of the best teams of the past decades, if we forgot. They brought in, as we know, a Rays executive to fill the void, Chaim Bloom. Bloom is a disciple of the Rays’ rebuild, and the thinking for why Betts will be moved is pretty much the same as why Price was moved in 2014. Betts will make a record $27 million in his final year, and with Boston drained of decent prospects they could use it as an opportunity to stock up.
Two things, though. For one, the Red Sox have 10/1 odds of winning the AL East and 12/1 odds of winning a pennant. Their team is still on a revenue high from a World Series win and their valuation is upwards of $3.2 billion. There is no money to actually be lost, and if anything, they are tanking a could-be-successful season for future prospects when their current fan base wants to see a winner, like they do every year.
Betts as we know isn’t alone. The Cubs are actively shopping Kris Bryant, looking for a prospect bump as their ownership, also on a valuation and revenue high from a recent World Series win, are essentially in a holding pattern as far as free agent signings go. In a word, the Reds are better positioned than the Cubs in 2020.
Cleveland is actively shopping Francisco Lindor themselves, and while their financial situation is closer to the Rays than the inexcusable position of the Red Sox and Cubs, they have essentially spiked a division of mostly rebuilders, trading both Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber from their core. In a word, the White Sox are better positioned than Cleveland in 2020.
Funny enough the architect of all of this, Andrew Friedman, could be the very executive that acquires Betts amidst all this furor. At the height of irony, the core of the Rays diaspora ends up being the biggest spender of them all, leaving the rest of the league to merely mock the Rays themselves.
And, to put a cherry on this Rays sundae, the Astros have a replacement for GM Jeff Luhnow—James Click, former VP of baseball operations for—you guessed it—the Rays. While the Astros have yet to begin their Phase Two much like the Cubs did, you can see it heading down that road; once George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman subsequently barrel towards free agency, we may very well see the Rays playbook out once again.
The old adage was that money could buy championships, and that very well could be true. Yet in the age of tankers, analytics, and tight budgets, most teams would probably say they would be enviable of the Rays’ simple position, and in the end it would be better to just pretend that it’s reality.