Ask Gary: Are Rays leading other teams to cheapness?

by Gary Shelton on June 2, 2018 · 4 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Rays

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Saturday, 4 a.m.

We are barely two months into the baseball season and it’s already been pretty well determined that there are just six teams with a legitimate shot at the first five playoff positions in the American League. The Rays are one of the top teams in the non-playoff division.  We know, however, that they have no intention of making a serious playoff run because the great sell-off Part 2 of high salaried / free-agent-to-be players has already begun. Do you think the Rays' strategy of keeping payroll low, when not in serious playoff contention, is catching on around the league and is responsible for so few teams being in the race?

Larry Beller

I doubt it. I don't think the owners who want to save money need to look to the Rays to figure out how.

The Black Sox scandal happened because White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was cheap. The Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees because their owner was broke. The Giants and Dodgers went to the West Coast because they were cheap.

In other words, there were cheap baseball owners long before the Rays. It's giving them too much credit for starting the trend. They sure have worked hard at it, though. A lot of teams try to pinch pennies, but not many can make Lincoln cry as hard as Tampa Bay. Others have tried, though.

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Personally, I wouldn't go as far as to say that the Rays have no intention of being in the playoff race. I just think it's not as high a priority as with other teams because (at least partly) the attendance is so lousy. It's harder when you don't have revenues. When you have money, a team's cycle is wider, and as we've discussed, the margin for error is extremely low. The Yankees can make a multi-million deal not work out, and no one blinks. That can't happen here.

There are, however, a lot of dedicated workers who want to win. Those guys aren't the reason the team is cheap. They didn't empty the stands. It's frustrating, I know.

So are the Rays against winning? No, not if it comes at an acceptable price. But the off-season's sell-off, the numbers show, wasn't because the team couldn't afford to win. Again, that wasn't a great team that was stripped for parts. Of all the guys from last year, two -- Corey Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi -- are really the only ones who are missed. (I suspect Colome will be, eventually).

Whether you credit the Rays, or the A's, or anyone else, I do think other teams have gotten a little smarter about their payroll over the years. I've never understood why teams give outlandish contracts to players when it's obvious they aren't going to contend. You aren't going to fool the fans for very long.

If the Rays can get closer to that second wild-card berth, I honestly believe they'll be less active at the trade deadline than you might think. That's the way they did it before when they got close. Archer might even last the year.

That doesn't mean they won't listen to phone calls, because the window isn't open for this team yet. Maybe in a couple of years, before the contracts get too big, it can repeat its success of the 90s. Because let's face it: The Rays haven't left themselves any other way to compete, have they?

If the Rays have had an effect on the rest of the league, I think that's it. Pare down when you have to, and when you get impetus going, make your run. It's less dependable than the Yankees or Red Sox, but it's a chance.

Look, the Rays didn't invent being cheap. There are always sports owners who have been there. But the big money of the Yankees and Red Sox may have helped decide some races earlier than usual. Then, there are the regular cheapskates, (Think: Oakland, Milwaukee, Seattle to name a few).

I think this was your point. Baseball has become such a have-and-have-not league that it's almost like we have AAAA baseball, another minor league (the lower teams of the major leagues). It's not good for the sport. Who wants to know most of your playoff races in early June? It's like watching a horse race with only a couple of thoroughbreds and the rest are swayback nags.

And as a secondary question, is the Rays' surprising showing at this point, at least partly due to there being such to a large number of non-competitive teams in the league this year?

Larry Beller

Absolutely. There a lot of bad teams playing a lot of bad baseball this season. That makes a lot of games as easy as win a fistfight at a Star Trek convention. (Just kidding, guys. Live long and prosper.)

I'm not talking about the sheer numbers; in any given game, someone has to lose. So the simple figure of how many teams lose hasn't changed a lot. As of May 31 of this season, there were eight American League teams with losing records. The previous three years, there were seven. In 2014, there were eight.

Ah, but look at just how bad the bad teams are. This season, you have three teams that are under a .400 winning percentage. Most seasons, you have one. That means that the bad teams this year are really bad.

Consider this: Of the teams the Rays have played this year and have a winning record against, there are exactly two who have winning records. Both the Angels and the As are barely over .500. The Rays have also won more than they've lost against Baltimore, the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City, Minnesota, Texas and Toronto. As of late Friday night, those teams are a combined 85 games under .500.

When I was a kid, National Lampoon, the old humor magazine, did an issue on JFK. In it, they had him (if he had lived) gathering up all the stars in baseball for the Washington team. These days, those teams are the Yankees and Red Sox. You can't convince me it's good for the game if the Yankees have all the thumpers and the Sox have all the hurlers.

This is a dead horse, but if there was a salary cap (and floor), it would even things out across the sport, and you'd have real competition.  Isn't that why we watch? Success should be more than the ability to outspend everyone else.

That said, the bottom line in sports is winning. And like a football team that gets all of the breaks, you don't have to apologize for winning.

How many games do the Rays need to win this season in order for Kevin Cash to be "Manager of the Year?"

Scott Myers

Historically speaking? Usually, a manager needs to finish with at least  90-plus wins to win it. But there have been exceptions.

Joe Girardi, when he was with the Florida Marlins, won it with a fourth-place finish in which he won just 78 games.Jack McKeon won it, also with the Marlins, with 75 wins. Felipe Alou won it with 74 wins with the Expos. Buck Showalter once won it with the Yankees with 70 wins (43 losses). Paul Molitor of Minnesota won it last year in the AL with 85 wins.

So it can be done with a meager finish. It helps if you have low expectations coming into a year, as Cash had. It helps if you do it in an outside-the-box manner, such as the Rays' "Bullpen days." That's an organizational decision, but the manager will get credit for it.

To win it, Cash is going to have to keep his team alive in the race for the second wild-card team.

As you and I both know, manager of the year is an organizational award anymore. And it will help Cash that his team stripped itself for parts before the season. If he can have a season in which he's alive for post season for most of the year, it will help.

But let's face it. It's going to be a lot easier to vote for the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Astros. How do you argue with the team that's won it? But Cash has done well so far. Let's see if it lasts.

What would you say are the current odds on LeBron leaving Cleveland?
Jim Willson
I'd make it about 50-50, maybe less if he wins the title.
I keep reading that James has had a falling out with the Cavs owners, who evidently don't remember how devastating it was for the franchise when he left the first time. James is still in the top handful of players in the league, and the Cavs would turn into the Orlando Magic if he left. Anyone in ownership should keep that in mind.
Scanning the odds on the internet, a lot of people think James would go to Philadelphia if he left. Or Houston or Los Angeles. I know this. If he goes this time, he isn't likely to do some orchestrated signing with Jim Gray. That was just foolish.
James got a lot of guff for leaving his hometown team the last time, if you remember. But that always made me laugh. The Cleveland Cavs didn't teach the guy how to play basketball. They were just lucky enough to have him for a few years.
This time, they should grab his leg and make him drag them anywhere he goes. Remember, the 76ers weren't good after trading Wilt. The Bucks weren't good after trading Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Magic weren't good after letting Shaquille O'Neill go. The Cavs will win as long as James leads them there. They're on a LeBron scholarship.
But I still don't think he's as good as Jordan.

The Times had an article about fans leaving the Lightning game 7 loss early. I'd like your opinion (I thought they should have included you.) on that - not their "right" to do what they want (of course they have that), but simply the act of walking out on your team because they are losing the game.

Cecil DeBald

Cecil, I'm cheap. I've never left a game earlier, even the ones I attended as a fan. I was always afraid of getting to the parking lot and hearing that there had been a historical comeback. I don't walk out of movies, even the bad ones, or concerts, even the out-of-tune ones. I don't want to miss anything.

As for others, I'm not going to blame anyone. It's their dime, and their entertainment.

But as a market? Sure, it makes a statement. I'm not sure as many fans leave if we are in, say, Chicago or Montreal.

Look, people deal with grief differently. That's true in life or death, and it's true in a crushing defeat by your favorite sports teams. I know there were a lot of fans who were devastated the Bolts lost their third home game in the series. They were crushed that stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov played poorly. Maybe they had work the next day.

But, as a journalist, I'm usually at a game 2-3 hours after it concludes. There is no "beating the crowd" for me. It's a different rhythm to watching a game.

Tickets are so expensive these days, Cecil, that I would never tell someone when they can come and when they couldn't. But is there an intensity to fans who stay in their seats? Sure there is.

Or, just maybe, they're cheap, too.

Also, one of the people quoted in the article said Tampa Bay has a national reputation as a fair-weather fan area. I'd like your opinion on if Tampa Bay is a fair-weather fan area, and if so, why. Does seem to me that, say, the Bucs have been hit a lot harder in attendance than other teams that lose just as much or more.

Cecil DeBald

I think the raw numbers bear that out, Cecil. We're certainly not St. Louis in baseball or Green Bay in football. We're a town that admires winning, and if you can win, we'll show up. But we won't show up merely because the team is playing. Right?

Look at baseball. We have the lowest attendance in the league most. years. In football, we were 29th in the league. It's only in hockey where we have a solid record of sellouts (even though the average ticket prices are in the bottom third of the league..

Granted, there are reasons for it. At one point in their histories, the  Lightning, Rays and Bucs have all been the worst franchises in their sport. There have been a lot of losing seasons across the board. There have been bad draft picks and bad coaches. It takes a toll.

You can truck out all the numbers about average income and corporate support, but we're fooling ourselves if we think we're one of the top markets in the country.

Know what I think? In their great seasons, the Rays and Bucs can carp about bad attendance. But not when they lose. I don't want to hear it. If a team doesn't win, it isn't holding up its end of the bargain.

Sometimes, I would have to file a plugger column before the game, or maybe a notebook. Lots of writers are typing like crazy for a notebook topper before the game starts and then here comes the National Anthem. What do you do? I don't mind saying that I've sat there and gotten my work done. I think anybody who wants to equate standing, or not standing, to patriotism or lack thereof is fooling themselves.
But you mention tradition. The DH in baseball is now 45 years old. It long ago lost its novelty status and now has its own tradition. I'm glad it provided for us guys like Edgar Martinez and David "Big Papi" Ortiz, as opposed to pitchers flailing away at balls they can't hit. I'd hate to think of the last few decades of baseball without some of the huge moments that have come from the DH position. Every league in the world employs the DH except for the NL and some obscure who-cares league in Japan. I hate, hate, hate watching pitchers hit. And I hate it even more in interleague play. And for those who talk about strategy and whether to pinch-hit for a starting or relief pitcher ... NEWSFLASH: Most starting pitchers barely last more than 6 innings and relievers are deployed almost batter by batter nowadays. As for strategy, it often takes it away rather than create strategy, often taking the bat out of the 8th hitter because the pitcher is up next. And ... NEWSFLASH: Managers do pinch-hit for the DH, bringing in a match-up based on the reliever. Save for as many as you can count on one hand, pitchers can't hit and it's a shame when one of them gets injured. I've long been in favor of the NL adopting the DH. Or at least some kind of uniformity has to be adopted, because right now it's an unfair situation in interleague play. What's your opinion?
Peter Kerasotis
Peter, here's my personal anthem stance, and it's an honest one. If I'm in a workroom writing like mad, or if I'm in a cafeteria (eating that way), then I might not stand for the anthem. I certainly don't stand if I'm at home or at a friend's house. I don't want to come across as some super-patriot who stands when I see a see a cupcake that is iced in red, white and blue here.
But if I'm in a press box, or on the field, or anywhere where I can be seen by the fans, I stand. I think it's my duty to stand if I'm going to write (pro or con) about those who do not. My father was in the service, and one of my sons has served, so it sounds different when I think about that.
I understand what you're saying. I've worked alongside writers who never stood, and I never said a word to them. They don't need patriotism lessons from me. I've worked with ridiculous deadlines (when I worked at the Miami Herald, I had to start to write a running  story as the game began on a 1 p.m. kickoff for our South American editions, as if they're waiting to see how the Dolphins did in Peru.) But my personal stand is, yes, I stand.
As I've written before, I've covered 10 Olympics, and I've heard all manner of national anthems. I've stood for every one of them. Not because I embrace the politics of those countries, but there is a respect factor. I don't want to explain to anyone why I didn't stand.
That said, I've never looked strangely at anyone who didn't stand. That's up to them. I once saw a bunch of NFL public relations assistants walk out on the anthem before a Super Bowl. (Back before Kaepernick got all the attention for his protest). Again, it was up to them. My own feelings about my country were not affected.
As far as your stance for the designated hitter, well, we're going to have a chocolate vs. vanilla disagreement here. I like the strategy that comes without the designated hitter. I always have. The AL simply doesn't have a question as big as "do you pinch hit for him or let him keep throwing?" I find it adds to my enjoyment of watching a game.
Look, some of us like mysteries, and some of us like action movies. Like what you want, I say.
For 20 years, I've mainly covered the Rays (with some post-season ball mixed in). And they've always had a designated hitter, and they've usually had a bad one. An aging outfielder, maybe. A backup first baseman.
I agree: Most leagues used a DH these days. But just because a lot of leagues do it doesn't mean it's my preference.
I'll also agree that I'd like the leagues to adopt the same strategy. But unlike you, I'd rather the AL dropped the DH. (Other leagues would follow). You cite two great examples in Martinez and Ortiz, but most DH's aren't like those guys. On most teams, I think you'll find that a DH is merely a guy getting the night off from the field, or getting into the lineup however he can.
Maybe it's in how you grew up. I grew up on the NL side of things, and I think it's more of a thinker's league. But that's just me.
What do you think of the turnover on the Lightning coaching staff?
Jim Willson
Individually, I had some regret. Rick Bowness was a good guy, and he had been here since June of 2013. A lot of head coaches consider their staffs as one, so yeah, that's sad.

Symbolically, however, I applaud Steve Yzerman for not hiding behind loyalty and for making a move to increase the standards of the team. It would have been easy to point to 113 points and the Eastern Conference finals and get complacent. He didn't do that.  He simply said that the defense needed to be better.

And frankly, yes, it does. You've got Victor Hedman, one of the finest defenders in the league. You traded for Ryan McDonagh. Anton Stralman is solid. Mikhail Sergachev is a future star. So why were there so many breakdowns? That had to drive Yzerman (and Cooper) crazy. He has Dan Girardi.

Now, remember this: The Lightning has some reinforcements coming on defense. Maybe Yzerman had a voice he wanted to hear in the coming months. That could help the development of Slater Koekoek and Jake Dotson and Cal Foote and Eric Cernak.

Remember, Yzerman has one goal in his life: That's to make the Lightning better. This needs to be a step in that direction.

I know this: The Lightning, with Yzerman and Jeff Vinik, isn't a bad place to work. They'll get reinforcements.

After the Lightning laid an egg in the last six periods of their season, and after they all said  their cliches on how much this hurt, it is time for us to state the obvious. The better team won.

How can we think that the Lightning would do any better after a long layoff than they did against the Capitals? We spotted them two games, and we almost got away with it. What are the chances the Lightning would do the same with the Knights?

With all that said its time for my Thunder Bolt awards for the the best players on the team this year. The criteria is simple: consistently playing at a high level. Extra points awarded for playing above your pay grade.

Forwards

CenterBrayden Point - Our most injury prone position, yet he always performed well above his 680K salary. Honorable Mention: J.T. Miller.

Right WingNikita Kucherov - with 100 points -- had a standout year. He out-earned his $4.7 million contract. Honorable mention: Ryan Callahan, who had a great playoff effort.

Left Wing: Yanni Gourde - He has over double the points of any other left winger and is not afraid to mix it up when the game gets rough.

Defensemen: Victor Hedman LD - He played monster minutes this year and the best plus minus of all defensemen.
Anton Stralman RD - Along with Hedman, he had a very solid year.

Goaltender: Andrei Vasilevskiy - A Veznia Trophy candidate in his first full season. Who could ask for more?

Out of all these the winner of the mythical Thunder Bolt this year has to be Andrei Vasilevskiy. I don't think any of us thought he would be this good stepping in for Bishop, but he has been spectacular.

Honorable Mention would go to Nikita Kucherov and his special 100-point season. That's not easy to do, but next year is a contract year for him. We have a chance to see it again. That's my rankings. How would you rank the team this year?

Richard Kinning

Richard, we have no way of knowing how the Lightning would have done against the Knights. They didn't do well in the regular season, did they?

But hockey is a game of matchups and focus, and they didn't do well in the regular season against Boston, either. Listen, I love the Knights. But I don't think the Lightning would have surrendered if they had gotten there. Granted, if the offensive funk (and it was almost eight periods) had continued, it would have been a short series.

I think you did a good job with your individual awards. I hadn't thought of ranking them in that manner. Now, I'll say this: I'm not big on handing out awards when a season ends as disappointedly as this team's did.

I like Point ... a lot. And, despite the late part of his season, you have to anoint Kucherov at the right wing. I'm not sure I agree with you on Yanni Gourde. He didn't  a good playoff, largely because of his size deficiency. I'd think about Stamkos, maybe Alex Killorn.

Defensively, I'd certainly agree with Hedman. I'm not sure the other defenseman shouldn't be Ryan McDonagh, who had a lot of playoff minutes.

I agree that Vasilevskiy should be the MVP of the team. He won 55 games (regular season and postseason. And if you added up all of his good nights, I'd suggest he was responsible for more wins than any other player.

Again, this is kind of like giving an Oscar for an Adam Sandler movie, though. The finish wasn't satisfying. It's going to take me a while before I'm ready to hear any of these guys thank the Academy. But it's a fun exercise, isn't it?

Just asking: Does Thunder Bug win anything? And if so, can it be a can of Raid?

 

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cecil DeBald June 2, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Alas, Gary, life is too short. Take care, my friend, and don’t be too hard on the Rays, they are my boys win or lose.

Cecil

Reply

Gary Shelton June 2, 2018 at 10:12 pm

I understand. But we can always be hopeful, right?

Reply

Larry Beller June 2, 2018 at 7:03 am

I loved your answer on the cheapness question in MLB. Yes there have been cheap owners down through history and the Rays need to get in line to match up with them. They do seem to be blazing a new trail in the modern era however. Other teams appear to be taking note.

My second team the Tigers, were stripped for parts as well. The owner died and with it went his passion for winning. Of course they overspent in recent years by ridiculous amounts of money. They are still paying $6 million a year on Prince Fielders contract though 2020 and he hasn’t played with them since 2014.

It is interesting that in the AL, where the Rays reside, that there are so many bad teams. Super teams like the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros have put together such powerhouses and out spent almost everyone else by such a wide margin that it’s like the rest of the league is tanking except for a handful of teams. 2 of those 8 teams currently over .500 in the AL are the As and Rays. Don’t count on either staying over .500 for very long. In the NL only 3 teams (1 in each division), is truly awful.

I agree, the Rays management works hard at being competitive. But it’s like they are running in a foot race with a large piano on their back due to the financial constraints from ownership.

Don’t even think about the Rays contending this year. The ground work has been laid for a full on commitment to a complete makeover and youth movement. No need to stray from that course now. The hope is they will come out on the other side with a solid team of good young (inexpensive) players. Maybe they will catch the Yankees and Red Sox in a down cycle one of these years and be competitive again. It’s a long shot but that’s the only hope the Rays have.

Reply

Gary Shelton June 2, 2018 at 10:11 am

Love the analogy of a team running with a piano on its back.

I agree that this isn’t the Rays’ year. They’re trying to get momentum with their young players. I think Hechavarria goes because of that more than because of money, because he’s in Adames’ way. I think Ramos goes because he has no contract next year and they’ll try to get something for him.

More and more, I feel like the Rays’ are trying from a certain level of management down, but they’re the Light (hitting) Brigade. It ends in a mess.

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