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Kevin Kiermaier: ‘It’s always fun when you get to stick it to the man’

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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.

Sign-stealing penalties could be ‘unlike anything seen in the sport’s recent history’

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Early this morning we learned that Major League Baseball was planning to talk to former Astros Carlos Beltrán and Alex Cora as part of the sign-stealing investigation. Late this morning Jeff Passan of ESPN reported that the investigation is, actually, going to go much wider than that.

Passan reports that Major League Baseball will not limit its focus to the 2017 Astros, who were the subject of the report in The Athletic on Tuesday. Rather, it will also include members of the 2019 Astros and will extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentions the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Oh, it also includes recently-fired Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman, who the league plans to interview but who, Passan says, has hired a lawyer. Which is sort of interesting in its own right, but let’s stay on topic.

Passan:

The league is attempting to cull tangible evidence from the widespread paranoia of front offices and teams around the game about others cheating and has indicated it will consider levying long suspensions against interviewees who are found to have lied, sources said . . . The penalties for illegal activity are determined by commissioner Rob Manfred, though if the league can prove wrongdoing, the severity could be unlike anything seen in the sport’s recent history, sources said.

The Cardinals were fined $2 million when an employee, Chris Correa, hacked the Astros computer system. Correa, of course, was permanently banned from baseball and served prison time. Former Braves GM John Coppolella was likewise given a permanent ban for lying about the team’s circumvention of international signing rules. If Passan’s source is right and the league is going to level heavy penalties here, that’s where you have to start, I imagine.

To me, the stuff about Coppolella’s lying and the bit about interviewees lying mentioned in the block quote is key.

Will anyone have the hammer brought down upon them for being responsible for stealing signs? Hard to say. But they likely will if they are not forthcoming with league investigators. Which is actually a pretty decent way to handle things when one is conducting an internal investigation. Maybe you don’t give amnesty to wrongdoers in the name of information-gathering, but you do signal to them that cooperation is incentivized and lack of cooperation will be punished.

It’s an approach, by the way, that Major League Baseball notably did not take in the course of its PED investigations a decade ago. That led to a final report that had massive gaps in information and caused the league to focus on and publicize only the lowest-hanging fruit. As I argued at the time, if information-gathering, as opposed to P.R. considerations was its true aim, MLB would’ve handled it differently.

In the early stages here, in contrast, it does sound like baseball is taking this seriously. That’s a good thing.