Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is sad

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NASHVILLE — Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg spoke with Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times here at the Winter Meetings. And he was waxing pessimistic. Pessimistic at the fact that the Rays don’t make a lot of money or draw a lot of fans and that the cost of players keeps going up and up and it makes it hard for his baseball operations folks to make the team better.

We’ve heard this from Sternberg in the past. Many times, in fact. This time, however, he has a lot of vivid metaphors for the Rays’ plight which makes it a more entertaining read than usual. He’s not just not on a level playing field or on the same field as everyone else, he’s out in the parking lot, looking in at the field. The other teams have tanks, he has a three-speed bicycle. He’s fighting with one hand tied behind his back. And so on.

He’s certainly not wrong about the relative financial disadvantage at which the Rays find themselves. They don’t draw at all, even with several good on-the-field years in their recent history. And even if they did, their ballpark is not a cash register like most other teams’ ballparks are. He can’t get a new one built or get out of his current lease. The Rays do well on television but are still a year or two away from cashing in on good ratings. They get revenue sharing money, but the checks which are cut to the Rays are now far closer to Ben Zobrist money than they are to top-flight starting pitcher money.

But despite all of those challenges, my sympathy for Sternberg only goes so far. Because while he’s right that no other baseball owner would want to trade places with him, that’s a pretty damn privileged group of men to which he’s referring. Men who have, thanks to monopoly protection, taxpayer subsidies and the public’s acceptance of their maintaining opaque financials, defined what it means to be successful so comically upward that even the worst in their club is doing fantastically well.

Take the Rays, for instance. Granting — with a respectful nod to Oakland — that they’re in the worst shape of any team in baseball, they’re still profitable. Granting that the money isn’t liquid, Sternberg’s investment in the Rays back in 2004 has grown dramatically. Forbes financial numbers for baseball teams are sketchy at best, but the Rays are generally thought to clear around $8 million a year and have gone from being worth $152 million to $625 million in the decade and change Sternberg has owned them. That pales compared to what the other teams are doing, but find me an example of a bottom-performer in any other business which is still making money and seeing such dramatic appreciation in value. Baseball is a pretty sweet business to be in.

I do get that this all stinks for Rays fans. The fact that Sternberg is still making money doesn’t make it any easier for a fan to get excited come hot stove time and the Rays can’t sign any big names or extend most of their players to long term deals. It’s pretty depressing, actually. But the linked article — as so many local media profiles of the Rays plight are — is couched in terms of Sternberg’s unhappiness, not that of Rays fans. And it’s really hard to gin up sympathy for a sophisticated financial mind who knew well the challenges of buying a small market team with a bad stadium situation before he did so.

Maybe he hoped that, like a lot of other cities, the local politicians would print some money for him with a taxpayer-subsidized stadium deal. Maybe he expected that the 150-year history of professional baseball which, in large part, has been defined by vast financial inequality among clubs, would suddenly reverse itself and equitable distribution of baseball revenues would commence.

If he did hope that I guess I can see why he’d picture himself sitting on a three-speed bicycle, about to be run over by a bunch of tanks right now. But if so it sure was dumb of him to ride his bike out onto this very well-established battlefield like that.

What happens with all the players the Braves lost yesterday?

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Yesterday’s unprecedented sanctions leveled on the Atlanta Braves hit them pretty hard, but it also turned a dozen players into free agents. What happens to them now? Who can sign them? When? And for how much?

First off, they get to keep their signing bonuses the Braves gave them. It wasn’t their fault the Braves messed up so it would make no sense for them to have to pay the money back. As for their next team: anyone can, theoretically, sign them. As far as team choice, they are free agents in the most narrow sense of the term.

There are limits, however, because as young, international players, their signings are subject to those caps on each team’s international bonus money which were imposed a few years back. Each team now has a “pool” of finite dollars they can spend on such players and, once that money is spent, teams are severely limited as to what they can offer an international free agent. Each summer the bonus pools are reset and it starts anew.

Which, on the surface, would seem to create a problem for the 12 new free agents, seeing as though a lot of teams have already spent much if not all of their July 2017-18 bonus pools. The good news on that, though, is that Major League Baseball has made a couple of exceptions for these guys:

  • First, the first $200,000 of any of the 12 former Braves players will not be subject to signing pools, so that’s a bit of a break; and
  • Second, even though these players will all likely be signed during the 2017-18 bonus pool period, teams have the option of counting the bonus toward the 2018-19 period. They can’t combine the money from the two periods, but they can, essentially, put off the cost into next year for accounting purposes.

Which certainly opens things up for clubs and gives the players more options as far as places to land go. A club can decide whether or not the guys on the market now look better than the guys they’ve been scouting with an eye toward signing after July 2018 and get a jump on things. Likewise, teams don’t have to decide whether or not to take a run at, say, Shohei Ohtani, burning bonus money now, or instead going after a former Braves player. Ohtani’s money will apply now, the Braves player can be accounted for next year.

The new free agents are eligible to sign during a window that begins on December 5 and ends on Jan. 15. If a player hasn’t signed by then, he can still sign with any club but cannot get a bonus. If a player hasn’t signed anywhere by May 1, 2018, he has the option of re-signing with the Braves, though they can’t pay the guy a bonus either.

Ben Badler of Baseball America has a rundown of the top guys who are now free agents thanks to the Braves’ malfeasance. Kevin Maitan is the big name. The 17-year-old shortstop was considered the top overall international free agent last year, though his first year in the Braves minor league system was less-than-impressive. There are a lot of other promising players too. All of whom now can find new employers.