Some equal time for the Rays defenders

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Yesterday I came out pretty sharply against the Rays recent moves. I stand by all of those comments, but I think it’s worth giving equal time to dissenting views.

Each of those posts contain analytically-based looks at each move and, for the most part, defends them on their baseball merits. I’ll let them stand on their own on their specific merits and not go in with point-by-point rebuttals (a) because that’s tedious; and (b) because I’m not the best-suited person to rebut analytical points.

There’s a (c) here, though, which is more important in my mind: no matter how many good points those articles make — and they do make many — it’s sort of beside the point. Because it seems to me that those of us slamming the Rays and those of us defending the Rays are talking past one another.

Sullivan, Drays Bay and others are arguing that the Rays front office was able to make some good moves. And they make those arguments pretty well in a vacuum. What they don’t address — and what I’m mostly concerned with — is the assumption that they HAD to make those moves. From where I’m sitting — and the credulousness some have for front office spin notwithstanding — Rays transactions in recent years, and certainly lately, seem to be pretty clearly mandated by ownership in order to either cut payroll or to keep it from growing and to shed arbitration-eligible dudes. That the GM and his team have made decent lemonade out of those lemons does not vindicate ownership’s mandate to cut payroll and shed arbitration-eligible dudes.

What’s more, such arguments — “hey, here’s the x, y, z of why trading away the face of the franchise is good!” — do not address the largest issue facing Tampa Bay Rays baseball, now and for the club’s entire history: fan apathy. Yes, they do relatively well in the TV ratings and their stadium and its location are a big hurdle to overcome, but the fact of the matter is that the Rays, as an organization, have rarely if ever done things which can be best explained in terms of giving the fans an entertaining product on the field. They have had some excellent teams, but they have, more than most clubs, let their baseball decision making be determined by the bottom line rather than making baseball decisions aimed at creating a consistently-winning and entertaining product.

A much simpler way to look at this is from the perspective of casual fans, families and the sorts of people who are not hardcore statistically-inclined diehards. What have the Rays done to attract these people? How does a 12-year-old kid get excited about the fact that they traded away Evan Longoria for payroll purposes and cut Corey Dickerson, an All-Star last year, because his 115 wRC+ far outpaced his projected 103 wRC+? That’s a consideration that a diehard fan who has, through big-time immersion, come to appreciate as a second-level thing, but it’s not how anywhere close to a majority of fans enjoy and experience the game. They like stars and familiar names and they want to believe that, if they go to a game, the team has a good chance to win it and that it’s fun in the process.

I’m not seeing any appreciation from the Rays’ defenders for that dynamic. I’m not seeing any acknowledgement that the Rays moves are making the team less familiar and less enjoyable for a casual fan and how that, when you take away some of your team’s better players and replace them with guys who might be better at some point down the road, there’s a good chance that the team will take a step back in the short term and how that that may turn off a lot of fans.

There’s an argument in the DRays Bay piece that those of us criticizing the Rays are doing so from some sort of pre-Moneyball, luddite perspective. This is ridiculous. Most of the folks who are leveling this criticism — and Drays Bay links our articles on this in their piece if you want to read them — are well-versed in team building theory. Many of us were deeply immersed in sabermetric reading and writing before the Rays even existed as a franchise. We’re well-aware of what motivations and incentives exist for general managers and the manner in which one builds a team for sustained competitiveness.

The point is that most people do not root for general managers. They do not care about long-term, sabermetrically-sound theories of team building. They want an entertaining team in which they can, over time, invest some loyalty and forge an emotional connection. If a club cannot serve those fans — which are, again, most fans — while also building their team for sustained competition, they need to explain why they can’t, given how many teams are able to do this. They are not entitled to the deference they and their defenders expect as a matter of course.

Rich Hill keeps Cardinals off balance into 7th, Pirates complete three-game sweep with 2-1 victory

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PITTSBURGH – When he’s on, Rich Hill‘s pitches still dance. They still dart. They go this way. Then that way. They can baffle hitters with their movement, particularly the ones that don’t come close to breaking the speed limit on most interstates.

In a game that seems to get faster each year, Hill is a throwback. A survivor. At 43 and 19 years into a career he figured would have been over long ago, the well-traveled left-hander knows he’s essentially playing on borrowed time.

Hill is in Pittsburgh to show a young staff how to be a pro while occasionally showing the kids he can still bring it. That example was on display in a 2-1 victory over St. Louis on Sunday that gave Pittsburgh a three-game sweep of its longtime NL Central nemesis.

Knowing the bullpen needed a bit of a break, Hill (5-5) kept the Cardinals off balance for 6 2/3 innings, expertly weaving in and out of trouble with a series of curveballs that hover around 70 mph offset by a fastball that can touch 90 mph but plays up because everything else comes in so much softer.

Hill walked three and struck out six while giving up just one run, a seventh-inning homer by Andrew Knizner that drew the Cardinals within one. He allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in the first four innings and stranded them all as the Pirates pushed their winning streak to five.

“He threw the pitches he wanted to throw,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “They didn’t swing at them. The fact that he’s able to just bounce back and continue to execute shows how savvy he is as a veteran.”

Ji Hwan Bae‘s two-run single off Miles Mikolas (4-2) in the first provided all the offense Hill would need as Pittsburgh swept St. Louis for the first time in five years. Ke'Bryan Hayes singled three times and is hitting .562 (9 for 16) over his last four games after a 3-for-32 funk dropped him to seventh in the batting order.

David Bednar worked the ninth for his 13th save and third in as many days, striking out Knizner with a 98 mph fastball that provided an exclamation point to three days of tight, meaningful baseball, the kind the Pirates haven’t played much of for the better part of a decade.

“We know we have a very good team,” Hill said. “We’ve had meetings in here and we talk about it and reinforce it and just continue to go out there and give that effort every single night and understand that (if) we continue to put in the work, it’ll start to show every night on the field.”

Tommy Edman had two hits for the Cardinals, and designated hitter Luken Baker picked up the first two hits of his career after being called up from Triple-A Memphis early Sunday.

The middle of the St. Louis lineup – Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Gorman and Nolan Arenado – went a combined 0 for 11 as St. Louis lost for the fifth time in six games. The Cardinals left 27 men on base at PNC Park over the weekend to fall back into last place in one of the weakest divisions in the majors.

It’s a division the Pirates – coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons – are managing to hang around the top of for a solid two months. The bullpen has evolved into a strength, with Bednar at the back end and a series of flashy hard throwers like Dauri Moreta in the middle.

Moreta came on for Hill with two outs in the seventh and struck out Goldschmidt with the tying run at first while Hill was in the dugout accepting high-fives, already thinking about his next start, likely on Saturday against the New York Mets. It’s a mindset that has kept Hill around for far longer than he ever imagined.

“Every time he picks up a baseball, I know he feels blessed to be able to continue to throw baseballs for a living,” Pirates catcher Austin Hedges said. “I think that’s one of the best things he can teach our young guys.”

UP NEXT

Cardinals: Continue a six-game road trip in Texas against the Rangers on Monday. Adam Wainwright (2-1, 6.15 ERA) faces Martín Pérez (6-1, 4.43 ERA) in the opener.

Pirates: A season-long nine-game homestand continues on Monday when lowly Oakland visits. Johan Oviedo (3-4, 4.50 ERA) gets the start against JP Sears (0-3, 4.37 ERA).