The Tampa Bay Rays have taken a hacksaw to their roster and their payroll this offseason and have hacked away particularly aggressively over the past several days.
Earlier this offseason they dealt face-of-the-franchise Evan Longoria to the San Francisco Giants. The timing on this was no accident, as they did it just before he got 10/5 rights, which would lock him in to Tampa Bay absent his consent to be traded as his once team-friendly contract got more expensive. They dealt Jake Odorizzi, who is now starting to get moderately expensive in his arbitration years. They designated outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment for the same reason. Last night they traded away Steven Souza for the same reason.
Each of these moves, individually, have been defended at least half-heartedly on the baseball merits by either the club, the media or its fans. Longoria is not the player he once was. Odorizzi can be frustrating at times. Dickerson had a bad second half. Hey, it’s baseball, and apart from Mike Trout and Jose Altuve, no one is perfect, so someone can construct at least a moderately plausible argument to defend any of these transactions in baseball terms.
Let us not be naive, however. Given the lackluster return for most of these players — indeed, they may get absolutely nothing for Dickerson, a good left-handed bat that any team should value — it’s laughable to say that these are truly baseball-inspired moves, even if the Rays front office and some Rays partisans are claiming they are. They’re financial moves. It’s almost insulting to suggest otherwise. They’re moves aimed at saving a few million dollars here and there to improve the owners’ bottom line. The players involved in all of this know what time it is.
Once upon a time in baseball, this would carry a lot of risk for a baseball owner. If you got rid of good and popular players and did not replace them with other good and popular players — and especially if the team begins to lose a lot more games — you’d feel the pinch at the box office. Fewer fans would buy tickets, fewer would watch the TV broadcasts, fewer would buy merch and fewer would patronize businesses that put up billboards on the outfield wall and the scoreboard. Losing, traditionally, has been bad for business for a baseball team.
We’re in a time now, however, when that is less true than it ever has been. Sure, it’s still better to win, but it hurts far less to lose these days given the way the business of baseball is set up.
Revenues, in 2018, are less dependent on actual fans going through the turnstiles than they ever have been. National and local media contracts send guaranteed money to the clubs regardless of how well the clubs play. The Rays take in tens of millions a year in revenue sharing from other clubs. Major League Baseball’s aggressive pursuit of “Official [whatever] of Major League Baseball” sponsorships and business partnerships does the same. The league’s foray into the digital world, which culminated in the multi-billion dollar sale of BamTech to Disney last year will send manna from heaven in the form of a $50-65 million check to team owners this spring . . . for doing absolutely nothing. Nearly every penny a club makes that is not going toward player salaries will go directly into the pocket of the owners.
You can’t lose forever, I suppose. At some point you’ll have a new TV deal to sign, and it’d be better to have an attractive product on the field then than a worse one, but for the Rays that won’t come for a couple of years. By then, of course, there’s a good chance the Rays will have broken ground on their new ballpark in Ybor City that will dramatically increase the value of the franchise, for which the current ownership group paid around $200 million in 2004. The Rays brass have complained about losing money pretty consistently since they bought the team, but when they sell, they’re likely to clear a billion bucks in the deal.
Which is the best way to understand what the Rays are doing. To its owners, the Rays are less a baseball team than a financial play. One in which, like a lot of financial plays, you take some modest losses for a while in order to make a big gain later. The club is a financial instrument not unlike any number of financial instruments with which its Wall Street-reared, Goldman Sachs alumni ownership group is quite familiar. When they get their new ballpark and/or flip the club for ten figures in the next couple of years, they’ll be written up as geniuses in publications that are far more interested in business stars than baseball stars.
In the meantime, if you’re a Rays fan and you just want to watch popular and familiar players play baseball and, heaven forfend, would like to see the club add some additional good ones to help the team get better, I guess you’re outta luck.