The Rays have, by far, the lowest team payroll in baseball this season at $53.5 million. The next-closest team is the Marlins at $70.6 million. The Rays have always been one of MLB’s thriftiest teams but the club has taken it to new levels as their Opening Day payroll of just over $60 million was their lowest since opening at $42 million in 2011.
Along with the Athletics, who happen to be their opponent in tonight’s AL Wild Card game, the Rays have approached the game with a “them against us” attitude where the big-spending Yankees and Red Sox must be dealt with by thinking outside the box. And, indeed, the Rays have, helping to popularize the use of “the opener,” in which a reliever starts the game for an inning or two before handing the ball to the would-be starter or another reliever. Their front office has been analytics-savvy long before every team had an analytics department.
Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who has been with the Rays being selected in the 31st round of the 2010 draft, was asked ahead of Wednesday’s AL Wild Card game about the Rays’ success despite having baseball’s lowest payroll. Kiermaier said, via Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, “It’s always fun when you get to stick it to the man.”
This is what the MLBPA is up against. Kiermaier thinks teams like the Red Sox ($236 million Opening Day payroll) are “the man” when in reality “the man” is Stuart Sternberg, the principal owner of the Rays. Sternberg, whose net worth is estimated at $800 million, bought the Rays for $200 million in 2004. The team is now worth $1 billion, according to Forbes. Payroll hasn’t grown at all while Sternberg has quintupled his original investment. The Rays don’t have to spend like the Red Sox but they also haven’t had to roll with $19-76 million payrolls since their inception. That is their own choice.
The Rays have done well enough with their small payrolls, winning 90 games last year and 96 games this year, but imagine if they increased payroll to sign a big-name free agent in his prime in recent years. The Rays might not have spent the last five seasons — the prime of Kiermaier’s career — watching the playoffs from home.