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Author Archives: Chuck Myron
On paper, the Rays are tied to a lease at Tropicana Field until 2027. In reality, there’s much more uncertainty involving the location of a franchise that had the lowest per-game attendance in the majors last year.
St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster has been adamant about not allowing the team to negotiate possible stadium sites outside the city, most notably in neighboring Tampa and Hillsborough County. Yet principal owner Stuart Sternberg told reporters during in spring training that he’s optimistic that progress can be made on the issue. The mayor said on Opening Day that since meeting with Sternberg in February, their respective staffs have been working together on the matter, as Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times notes. Whether that means the Rays could soon be looking at sites in St. Pete, Tampa or elsewhere is unclear. What is clear is that the question of where the Rays will play in the coming years continues to hang over the team like the pesky catwalks on the ceiling of the Trop.
Of course, as with any front office issue, that doesn’t mean anyone in the clubhouse is paying much attention to it.
“I honestly believe we’re beyond that being a distraction for us,” manager Joe Maddon told reporters in spring training when MLBTR asked about the ongoing stadium issue. “I mean, it’s been going on for a while now. We’ve been ridiculed nationally. We’ve been ridiculed locally. We’ve had conversations about it.”
Third baseman Evan Longoria certainly doesn’t seem worried about the team's future in Tampa Bay, if his decision last winter to sign a contract extension through 2023 is any indication. Utility man Sean Rodriguez, one of six players to speak to MLBTR about the stadium issue, believes it's possible teammates or potential free agents may take Longoria's extension as a sign that there's no cause for concern.
“You could definitely think that,” Rodriguez said. “If he’s willing to stay here, it’s obviously because he believes in what’s going on.”
Sternberg said on Opening Day that even if the team started working toward a new stadium immediately, the earliest the club could move in would be five or six years from now. If Longoria’s deal stands to ease the mind of any player considering a long-term deal with the club, the lack of immediacy makes it a non-issue for players operating on shorter timeframes.
“We know we’re going to be playing in Tropicana Field in 2013, and that’s kind of all we’re worried about,” outfielder Sam Fuld said. “Other than a select few, we’ve all bounced around enough to know not to look past the next month, let alone the next year.”
Fuld, like all but five of his teammates, is on a deal that expires at the end of the season. Ben Zobrist is one of the five who figures to be with the Rays at least a little while longer, as his contract includes team options in 2014 and 2015. Zobrist said he’s on board with whatever the organization decides to do about a place to play.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “They (Rays officials) make that decision. As players, especially around here, you have to be flexible. If you’re not flexible, then you’re not going to last very long in baseball, because you have to be, to be able to be successful in this profession. Things are changing all the time, and you’re always traveling, and there’s always a new situation. So it’s certainly something that you have to have some thick skin (about), and just learn to enjoy it all.”
Starting pitcher Alex Cobb said he takes a neutral stance about the stadium talks, but concedes that there are ties that would make staying at the Trop appealing to him.
“Obviously, it would be nice to have sold-out crowd every night, which is asking a lot, but I grew up coming to this stadium,” he said. “Living in Vero Beach, I drove over all the time, came to games, and chased autographs around the stadium, so there’s a big nostalgic feeling about this stadium. I live close-by to the stadium now, so it’s a nice, easy drive.”
The same roof under which Cobb watched his baseball heroes now makes his professional life a little easier.
“I love the stadium,” he said. “I know every time I’m getting the ball that it’s going be 72 (degrees) and no wind. I know the conditions I’m going to get.”
Rays fans might not show up in droves at the ballpark, but many of them show their support in other ways, as Maddon observes amid the specter of a stadium issue that feeds the perception of the team’s lack of appeal.
“While that’s all going on, the thing that I think gets overlooked, from our perspective, is how much we respect our fans,” Maddon said. “Our fans have been great to us. You walk up and down in the Tampa Bay area, you’re going to see a lot of Rays gear. I live up in Tampa. I see it all over the place, right on Bayshore (Boulevard). People are talking about us. We’re well-watched on television. We’re well-listened-to on radio. So, the thing about the ballpark — of course we want a better ballpark. Of course we do. In the right spot. But it’s not a distraction.”
Rays local television broadcasts drew a 4.89 rating in 2012, up about 28% over 2011 and almost squarely in the middle of local ratings that ranged from a high of 9.13 for the Tigers to a low of 1.02 for the Astros last season. The Rays cite data from the Scarborough Research firm that showed the number of fans who attended one of their games, watched one on TV, or listened on radio was greater than any other team in the Tampa Bay area in 2011, including the NFL’s Buccaneers.
The numbers suggest that the local market isn’t the problem, and that the team’s attendance woes could be solved with a stadium in a better location within the area. Such a move might make Cobb’s commute a little longer, but it would mean less upheaval than if the Rays left Tampa Bay entirely, and perhaps a more certain future for a club looking to build on the success of the past five years.
Several Rays players told MLBTR that the departure of mainstay James Shields in an offseason trade was easier to take than it might have been if the deal had happened in the middle of the year. That’s not the only way timing could play a significant role in determining how successful the transaction will become for Tampa Bay.
There’s always been judgment involved when a team calls up a prospect, like the four whom the Rays acquired as part of the Shields trade. Now, as teams try to balance their needs of the moment with worries about heading to arbitration a year too soon with a player they project as a star, there’s often a layer of decision-making that transcends on-field performance.
Rays manager Joe Maddon expressed confidence during spring training that the team’s front office would let baseball acumen alone determine when 22-year-old Wil Myers, the most coveted prospect in the Shields deal, makes his major league debut. Rays executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman didn’t directly say whether that will be the case, but when MLBTR asked whether Maddon’s belief is correct, Friedman repeated comments he made recently to Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com indicating that competitiveness and baseball readiness are his chief concerns.
“With any potential move there are a lot of factors to consider — the fit on our roster, what it means for our depth, and so on,” Friedman said. “We also have to be really mindful that our goal is to compete year in and year out in the toughest division in baseball with almost no margin for error. The AL East will expose very quickly any weaknesses that you have. So when we bring someone here, we need to feel that he’s ready to step in and help us win right away. As Joe has touched on already this spring, if we add someone who’s not ready, not only will it hurt the team but it can really set the player back as well.”
If Myers isn’t yet ready, it doesn’t seem like he’s far off. Last year the outfielder spent a third of the season at Double-A and the rest at Triple-A, and altogether he blasted 37 home runs with a slash line of .314/.387/.600. He opened the season as the No. 4 prospect on the Baseball America and MLB.com lists, though his 2013 performance has lacked sizzle so far. His OPS of .762 in 17 major league spring training games is similar to his .768 OPS in 10 games at Triple-A. Still, that’s significantly better than Tampa Bay’s AL-worst .569 OPS.
Ben Zobrist, one of the bright spots in the Rays lineup this year, told MLBTR he accepts the club’s decision to keep Myers on the farm for now.
“He’s going to be ready when he’s ready,” Zobrist said. “The organization’s going to make that decision. He’s obviously an exciting player. He’s done a lot of really good things so far in his minor league career, and I think if all goes well, he’s going to be an exciting player at the major league level, too, but he’s still got some seasoning to do, from their standpoint, and we’ll see what happens as the year goes on. But he’s definitely an exciting player to watch.”
Alex Cobb sympathizes with Myers. The right-handed starting pitcher improved his ERA each year in the minors after making his pro debut at rookie ball in 2006. As is often the case with young arms in the Rays organization, Cobb spent time at each level of the system, finally reaching the majors in 2011. Last season, at the age of 24, he made double-digit appearances in the big leagues for the first time. Still, Cobb came to embrace the club’s deliberate approach to call-ups, as he explained to MLBTR.
“I’ve been victim to it as much as guys in the past, but you understand it,” he said. “There’s pros and cons of being in this organization. That’s one of the minor cons of being a player in this organization. There are so many pros of just everyday life in and out of the clubhouse here. And so, when that does happen to you, you understand that you just have to pay your dues. Chris Archer’s going through it right now. It’s not a bad thing, once you’ve beaten that. It’s very discouraging while you’re going through it, and you try to put on as good a front as you can, but it is tough. But, going through it, it makes you a stronger person on and off the field. So, it’s only going to make you better between the ears when you get up here and finally do stick. You really do appreciate it.”
Cobb, who’ll be 30 by the time he’s eligible for free agency, certainly doesn’t hold any grudge against the organization for the pace of his ascent up the minor league ladder, and doesn’t think Myers or other prospects will, either.
“Initially, maybe, that’s their first instinct, is to get mad,” Cobb said. “But I think when your head cools down, you prevail from whatever the emotions you’re going through, and you realize that it’s a smart business decision. And it is, because from the outside looking in now, you realize how much they need to do those type of things to stay competitive. I think it’s become an understanding that now you pay your dues, and you do it, and you eventually become a better big leaguer for it, and you have a great career afterwards.”
The Rays have made a name for themselves as a club that gets the most out of limited resources. So, when they commit $100MM, as they did with Evan Longoria’s six-year extension in November, it’s not too surprising to see Longoria himself refer to the figure as “an insane number.” The 23rd most lucrative extension in baseball history dwarfs the three-year, $28.5MM extension Tampa Bay gave Scott Kazmir in 2008, the team’s second highest entry on that all-time list. The money also clearly establishes Longoria as the focal point for a team that faces uncertainty about whether it will make a similar commitment to David Price.
“Keeping David is the hot topic,” outfielder Sam Fuld told MLBTR. “Everybody’s aware that we do have the ability to keep him long-term, but it’s just a cost-benefit analysis of whether it’s worth doling out X amount of money for David and then having fewer dollars to spend on other guys.”
Ben Zobrist, who signed a four-year, $18MM extension in 2010, doesn’t subscribe to the idea that one high-dollar move necessarily precludes another. He, like Fuld and several other players who spoke to MLBTR this spring, ultimately views Longoria’s extension as a positive. Zobrist doesn’t think Rays management gave too much thought to Price when they were negotiating the deal for Longoria.
“Shoot, I don’t think that that’s what they were sitting around doing,” he said. “Like, hey, let’s do this, and not do this. I think they’re taking it one step at a time. With what we’ve got right now, and what our team’s looking like this year, our goal is to win a World Championship this year. They’ve got to make the best decisions they feel for our organization for this year and beyond. Evan was the step that they were able to make in the offseason, and I’m sure they’re trying to do more.”
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg told reporters last month that the team can “absolutely” re-sign Price, but he questioned what the Rays could afford to put around the left-hander if they did. Infielder Sean Rodriguez echoed those sentiments, and believes Longoria's deal is a sign of the team's financial mettle.
"When you see somebody that you’re willing to spend the money on and you want to use, whether it’s as the face of the franchise or what not, it says, yeah, we’re willing to spend the money if it’s somebody who’s going to contribute back to the team and we know it’s going to be beneficial for us to keep long term. Then we’ll do it," Rodriguez said. "That’s what they did with Longo. Hopefully they do that with 14 (Price).”
Even if it doesn't break the bank, Longoria’s deal comes with significant risks. Chief among them might be his durability after a partially torn left hamstring limited him to 74 games last season. Longoria will turn 37 in the final guaranteed year of the extension, and conventional wisdom suggests he’ll become increasingly injury prone as he ages. Manager Joe Maddon isn’t worried, though, based on his view that many players become less susceptible to nagging injuries over time as they continue to refine their workout programs and become further accustomed to the daily grind of the major league schedule. The manager also expressed his belief that a lavish contract doesn’t change a player’s approach, citing his five-category system for describing the attitudes of major league players.
“For the most part, I think it just truly puts them into that category five player — all I want to do is win,” Maddon said. "They’ve gone through the other stages of this game and now they can really focus on one thing. The attempt to make a lot of money is gone, and now it’s just about winning only. I think that’s what happens most of the time. You get past, ‘I belong here and now I want to make some dough,’ and they do. Now when they show up at the ballpark there’s only one agenda: winning the World Series.”
Maddon praised Longoria for the way he’s handled the extension, one in which he’s solidified his status as a team leader without fostering envy in a clubhouse otherwise filled with players on much cheaper deals. It’s apparent that there’s no undercurrent of jealousy among his teammates.
“He’s one of the best players in the game; he deserves what he got,” right-hander Jeremy Hellickson said. "We’re happy for him, and it doesn’t really affect us too much.”
Pitchers Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann said they take comfort in knowing Longoria, who led all major league third basemen in UZR in his last full season, will be at the hot corner for years to come. Hitters said they also see a benefit when a star like Longoria signs for the long haul.
“It’s great; it’s refreshing to see a guy who just really cares about the franchise, and that’s sort of a rarity these days,” Fuld said. “It’s kind of uplifting to everybody else. It really helps us buy into the team idea, because given the trades, releases and uncertainty of the game, it’s difficult sometimes to look at the team aspect of things. It’s easy to individualize things and just worry about yourself, but when somebody makes what some would term a sacrifice, it really puts a lot in perspective and allows us to focus on the team.”
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Much of what general managers do involves negotiation, but a handful of general managers use a strategy involving arbitration-eligible players that brings an early end to the customary give-and-take. As Tim Dierkes of MLBTR detailed in January, five teams take a stance known as “file to go” or “file and trial” with players who are up for arbitration. Four more clubs dabble in the practice of ending negotiations with players and their agents once the MLB-imposed deadline for the two sides to exchange figures arrives. That forces an arbitration hearing, and that's a venue in which Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman, a file-to-go proponent, has never lost.
Friedman is 5-0 in arbitration, and he won his first case, against catcher Josh Paul in 2006, just months after taking over Tampa Bay’s front office. It seems as though Friedman, with such a sterling record in the courtroom and with the successful turnaround of the small-market Rays on his resume, would relish every chance he gets to outfox his competitors. Yet he told MLBTR that part of the rationale for file to go is to curb the subtle maneuvering that takes place on both sides.
“There are a lot of reasons behind the policy, but the aspect that is most beneficial is that it keeps the discussions leading up to the deadline reasonable and grounded in the overarching point of the process,” he said. “At its heart, the process is meant to pay players fairly for what they’ve accomplished. No more, no less. When both sides are held to numbers that they’ve been artificially forced to swap, it adds a level of gamesmanship to the process that distracts from the real purpose of the whole exercise. Our goal is always to get to a fair settlement that rewards the player for what he’s done. Adding this extra layer only complicates that.”
Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com that one of the reasons he uses the strategy is to speed up negotiations in an effort to strike a deal before the deadline. It’s unclear whether file to go had a significant effect on the lack of arbitration hearings this year, but the policy hasn’t prevented the Rays from going to trial more often than any other American League team in the time since Friedman’s been in charge.
The Rays came close to going to an even greater number of hearings. They avoided arbitration with three out of four eligible players right before the deadline to exchange figures in 2010. That year, players union executive director Michael Weiner disputed Friedman’s theory that the union put pressure on agents of players negotiating with file-to-go teams.
“With respect to the file-to-go strategy, or the file-and-trial strategy, the union has long believed, and has expressed to the commissioner’s office, that that strategy stands the purpose of salary arbitration on its head,” Weiner told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. “Years ago, many clubs took the view that it didn’t make sense to talk until after we exchanged numbers, and to say that we won’t talk if you exchange numbers in our view is not consistent with the way the system was designed to operate. But clubs are entitled to negotiate as they see fit.’’
Friedman told Topkin that, with two more teams adopting file to go in 2010, he thought the union wanted to stop the strategy from becoming more widely used. When Friedman spoke to MLBTR recently, he was quick to dispute the idea that file to go continues to grow across baseball, pointing out that a sizable majority of teams aren’t in the file-to-go camp.
Friedman and the Rays have had 15 potential arbitration cases come up in the last three years, but as our arbitration trackers show, they went to trial with only one of them, against Hendricks Sports client Jeff Niemann in 2012. Niemann was once more eligible for arbitration this past winter, but the two sides avoided a hearing and settled on a one-year, $3MM deal. That was a raise on Niemann's $2.75MM salary from last year, but still not as much as the $3.2MM he asked for going into his hearing in 2012.
Had Niemann gone to trial a second time, he could have followed a path similar to Paul, a Dick Moss client who lost in arbitration to the Rays in back-to-back seasons. When Paul hit free agency the following winter, he didn’t appear to hold a grudge and re-signed with Tampa Bay. Niemann didn’t address his arbitration when he spoke to MLBTR this spring, but he praised the Rays for their ability to develop a deep store of talent and gave no indication of any hard feelings. That’s just the sort of attitude Friedman hopes to foster with file to go.
“Simply put, we think that our policy gives both sides the best chance of getting to a number that each of them can feel good about,” Friedman said. “In essence, it adds a level of rationality to a process that, on occasion, can get emotional. It helps keep us grounded.”