The Rays are not often in the spotlight. They play in a smaller market in a division filled with spotlight teams. And since their 2008-2013 run when they made the playoffs four times in six seasons, they have become a bottom-tier team in the American League East. They’ve posted four consecutive losing seasons and have finished last in the division twice.
But the Rays have been the story of the first week of spring training.
In the span of just a few days the team designated for assignment outfielder Corey Dickerson, traded righthander Jake Odorizzi for a very modest return, acquired designated hitter/first baseman C.J. Cron for a player to be named, traded Steven Souza in a three-team deal that landed lefthander Anthony Banda, second baseman Nick Solak and two players to be named and signed outfielder Carlos Gomez to a one-year, $4 million deal.
There has been a lot of analysis whether these moves are a play to make the Rays better in 2019 and beyond, or if they are simply moves to shuffle money around while still potentially remaining competitive this year.
But the simplest answer might be the best one. The Rays front office is trying to compete with restrictions on payroll that stretch far beyond any other team.
In simple terms, the Rays are really cheap.
After clearing Odorizzi, Souza and (likely) some portion of Dickerson’s salaries off the books, the Rays are expected to head into 2018 with a payroll in the $70-75 million range. That will be right in line with what they’ve spent in recent years. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Rays Opening Day roster payroll peaked at $76.8 million in 2014. Over the past five seasons, the Rays Opening Day payroll has averaged $70 million. Tampa Bay had an Opening Day payroll of $72 million in 2010 with a 96-win team, back when that was a respectable, if still bottom-tier, payroll.
With revenues surging around the league, the rest of the league has moved onward and upward. The Rays have not.
In 2018, it’s fair to ask if any team can be successful over any stretch of time with such a small payroll. We don’t really have an answer to that question because no other team has tried.
The Rays are in a bad stadium situation with a bad television contract and draw few fans, but even when comparing them to other smaller revenue teams, Tampa Bay is struggling to stay competitive financially.
The Athletics’ stadium situation is even worse than Tampa’s–Tropicana Field can boast it at least doesn’t have sewage rolling through the clubhouses. But Oakland’s Opening Day payroll has topped $80 million in each of the past four seasons. The A’s $86.8 million Opening Day payroll in 2016 is $10 million more than the Rays have ever spent.
The comparisons to other small market teams is even less favorable for the Rays. The Marlins are the most similar. They have averaged a $71 million Opening Day payroll over the past five seasons, but unlike the Rays, they have shown a willingness to spend more at times. Miami’s payroll surged to $115 million last year before they tore it all down, and they also topped $100 million in 2012.
The other smaller revenue teams have all outspent Tampa Bay. The Pirates (an average of $84.9 million for Opening Day salaries over the past five years), Brewers ($84.7 million), Padres ($87.2 million), Indians ($94.8 million), Reds ($104.3 million) and Royals ($112 million) all greatly exceed the Rays’ $70 million in average spending.
And each of the other teams has shown the willingness to raise its payroll to try to take advantage of its competitive windows. Of the nine other teams listed above, eight have surged their payroll to $100 million or more (the As are the only team other than Tampa who has not). In comparison, after the Rays won 96 games in 2010, they cut their payroll by nearly $30 million for Opening Day 2011.
Spending money doesn’t guarantee major league success. But in an era where the competitive advantages a front office can exploit have roughly the shelf life of a bowl of guacamole, it’s also true that teams must be willing to spend competitively to compete. It’s not fair to expect the Rays to match the Yankees, Red Sox or Blue Jays in spending. But so far, the Rays haven’t shown the ability or willingness to even compete with the Royals, Brewers or A’s.
It’s possible Cron will match Dickerson’s production this season, even if Dickerson has been a more productive hitter in two of the past three seasons. It’s possible Odorizzi will flame out in Minnesota, even if before last season Odorizzi was one of only 14 pitchers to post more than 2.0 Wins Above Replacement in 2014, 2015 and 2016, per Fangraphs. It’s possible the 32-year-old Gomez will match the production of the 28-year-old Souza, even though Souza was more productive last year and over the last three seasons.
But these are moves of a team shuffling roster spots to keep payroll low. Most teams wouldn’t trade Odorizzi for pennies on the dollar. With a $6.3 million salary and no team contract obligations beyond 2018, the upside of him returning to his 2014-2016 form is far greater than the modest financial cost of keeping him and seeing him struggle again.
But then, other teams aren’t trying to win on a $75 million payroll. And as long as that’s the case, it’s hard to see how the Rays can succeed.