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It Won’t Be THAT Bad, Jeff

7 April 2010

There are two things I’ve tried to avoid doing too often here on the blog.

One is to use other writers’ work as the impetus for a post. There’s an infinite number of great topics out there waiting to be covered, such that there shouldn’t be any screaming need to piggyback on someone else’s writing (the terrific stylings of the Fire Joe Morgan crew notwithstanding, of course). Of course having said this, I will now point you to another post I wrote just three months ago, where I did exactly that which I claim not to do: Call out another writer’s work, in this case the great Tim Marchman. And I’m about to do the same today with a column written by the equally great Jeff Passan. So maybe this will only happen when it’s something written by someone whose work I greatly respect and admire.

The second thing I’ve tried not to do is write in much detail here about the Tampa Bay Rays. I’ve spent the past year and a half learning more about the Rays than any person ever should about any subject. There’s been a strong temptation to keep those facts and opinions under wraps until the book comes out, rather than give away too many spoilers. But today’s column by Passan about the Rays just made me shake my head too many times to let it stand.

A caveat before we dive in. Here are Passan’s full archives at Yahoo.com. Pick almost any article in there and there’s an excellent chance you’ll find a terrific read. Jeff is a terrific writer and reporter, and I hope we see 100 more just like him enter the industry in the coming years. But Jeff’s article, like Marchman’s, struck me as far too negative. Maybe that’s because I’m an incorrigible optimist, but still – a Ray Fiskeing was needed.

(If you’re not watching Damages, you’re missing out. Best show no one ever talks about.)

Here we go:

The scene, so familiar the past two years, played out again Tuesday night. The Tampa Bay Rays, an unparalleled collection of young baseball-playing talent, hugged and jumped and celebrated together. They won their first game of the season in dramatic fashion, and their whooping included no pretense. They were thrilled for the fans, for each other and for the man in the middle of their makeshift mosh pit.

His name is Carl Crawford, and he is, very simply, the Tampa Bay Rays. Crawford is a 28-year-old left fielder for the Rays. He has won four American League stolen-base titles, hit .300 or better four times and is generally considered the best defensive player at his position in the major leagues. Crawford remains the lone link between the historically disastrous Rays of the early 2000s and the wildly talented Rays of the new decade – a team that, despite limited resources, fields a lineup with almost every bit the talent of their top American League East foes, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

“I’ve seen it grow from nothing to something, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of that,” Crawford said. “When something like that happens, it has a special place inside you. So, you know, you remember that.”

Crawford paused. He knew the next sentence needed to escape from his lips. It still pained him to say it.

“And then,” he said, “you do what you have to do.”

Carl Crawford is almost certainly not going to be a Ray next season. He might not even make it through all of this season with the team, depending on whether or not the Rays are in contention at the All-Star break. In an ideal world, a player drafted and developed by a team who grows into a star and then comes up on free agency would get signed to a long-term extension. And we all live happily ever after. Crawford’s “you do what you have to do” quote tells us that he’s not going to settle for a monster discount contract, and that he reserves the right to solicit bids from richer clubs who are more willing to pay him big bucks. All true, all fine, Passan’s right, and Crawford’s right.

But the red flag sentence here is this:

His name is Carl Crawford, and he is, very simply, the Tampa Bay Rays.

No, he really isn’t. No one is the Tampa Bay Rays. Not Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Ben Zobrist or even baseball’s most valuable commodity, Evan Longoria. Every player is replaceable. It might be tougher to trade away a player who came up through your system, rose to stardom, led you to post-season glory and is now one of your most identifiable personalities. Mike Francesa’s head would spin off its axis and land somewhere on Cybertron if the Yankees ever traded Derek Jeter. But the psychic wounds would heal, the Yankees would plug in someone else at shortstop, and the combination of their resources and smarts would ensure they remain championship contenders for years to come. And that’s Derek Jeter.

In the Rays’ case, management takes it as a given that they’ll need to turn over personnel frequently. These are just the realities of how service time works in Major League Baseball. Players typically offer the best value play in the first three years of their big league careers, when they start to display their talent, while still remaining inexpensive commodities not yet eligible for salary arbitration, and years away from free agency. Once those players mature, their skills will often improve, until you’re looking at a fully-formed star by their late-20s.

It’s at that point that the player might be at his best on the field and most identifiable to fans. It’s also when they’re about to become more expensive than at any point in their careers, making them, relatively speaking, less valuable to a ballclub. This is somewhat true for high-revenue teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, who have to manage a budget but will pay top dollar for top talent. But it’s tremendously true for a team like the Rays, who can derive more value out of, say, a top prospect coming up to take Crawford’s job for $400,000 a year plus the two top draft picks to be fetched by letting Crawford go to free agency or the three prospects he’d fetch in a walk-year trade.

And here’s another point, albeit a sad one, brought up by friend of the site and FireJerryManuel operator Sagiv Edelman: Is there any evidence to suggest that losing a Carl Crawford markedly hurts attendance, or revenue streams in general? The same way the old saw, “we finished last with you, we can finish last without you” holds currency in baseball, “we don’t draw fans with you, we can not draw fans without fans without you” also applies. The Rays continue to struggle with attendance and any attempts to get a new stadium built, despite their great on-field success in 2008, and a pretty solid follow-up in 2009. There are many reasons for these problems (which I address in the book), but from a management point of view, the bottom line is this: Let’s put a winning product on the field with the resources we have. The Rays have a good chance to maintain their success after Crawford leaves (as we’ll see momentarily). Why shell out $75 million in the name of some nebulous face-of-the-franchise ideal if there’s a better, cheaper way to achieve the same goals?

…come opening day 2011, Carl Crawford, heart of the Rays, will be just the latest mercenary on a big-money team – and the first in a long line of Rays who could chase green in other pastures. First baseman Carlos Pena hits free agency next year. Shortstop Jason Bartlett follows in 2011, center fielder B.J. Upton and relief ace J.P. Howell in 2012. Starter Matt Garza and super utilityman Ben Zobrist could hit paydirt in 2013.

Even though Friedman maneuvers deftly in almost all respects of his job – he locked up the team’s best player, Evan Longoria, through 2016, circumvents service-time problems with aplomb and built the best farm system in the minor leagues – he alone cannot stop the inevitable. In less than a year, the Rays will bleed talent. To cauterize themselves would take a miracle.

Why would it take a miracle exactly? The last two paragraphs seem to contradict that statement. Through a combination of past high draft picks nabbed thanks to the annual last-place finishes of the old regime, shrewd trades and signings made by the new regime, and some excellent drafting and development by a group of great talent evaluators, the Rays are overloaded with terrific, young talent. If Crawford and Pena and Rafael Soriano leave after this season (as seems likely), they do indeed have Garza and Zobrist and Howell and Bartlett and Upton and Longoria still around to pick up the slack. They’ll also have an influx of saved cash available to spend in any way they choose.

And here’s where the real strength of the franchise comes into play. No team in baseball does a better job with player valuation than the Rays. The reason Dave Cameron labeled Longoria as baseball’s most valuable commodity isn’t solely because of his talent; Longo’s a terrific player who’ll be an MVP candidate for years to come, but Albert Pujols is a better player at this point.

No, the reason is because of the amazing contract the Rays got Longoria to sign. Six days into his major league career, the Rays third baseman signed a six-year, $17.5 million contract. Six years. $17.5 million. That would already be the biggest bargain in all of baseball. But wait, there’s more. The Rays also got Longoria to sign up for three club options, i.e. what would’ve otherwise been his first three post-free agency seasons. Those options are for $7.5 million (with a $3 million buyout that’s as likely to get exercised as I am to steal Longoria’s starting job away from him), $11 million and $11.5 million. The Rays were taking some risks here. Longoria was three years away from arbitration, much less free agency. Though he was a top draft pick, we’ve seen other top draft picks fail in the past. With that said, the upside was enormous, and it’s worked out better than the team could’ve ever dreamed. Longoria’s contract has the potential to rank with the vintage Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson deals as one of the biggest steals in the history of free agent-era baseball.

Lest you think that deal is an anomaly, check out James Shields’ four-year, $11.25 million contract, another huge bargain which also includes…wait for it…three club options! That’s for a pitcher who’s one of the biggest mortal locks in the game to deliver 200+ innings of above-average performance every single year. There’s one other jaw-dropping contract on this club. It’s a four-year, $15.25 million steal (with two club options!) for a player with a rare blend of extra-base power, speed, on-base ability and fantastic defense, someone who’s been with the club long enough to become, in some people’s eyes, the face of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Yup, Carl Crawford.

The Rays don’t just develop talent better than perhaps any other team in baseball. They get more bang for their buck with said players than any other team. As long as Andrew Friedman and the army of talented scouts, instructors and anonymous stats crunchers continue their excellent work, the Rays will keep churning out new stars every year. Most will see losing Crawford, Pena, Soriano and others as a crisis. The Rays will see it as an opportunity.

Baseball is readying for a labor war next year. The union on Tuesday alluded to a potential collusion claim from the most recent free-agent class. Major League Baseball wants to expand the draft internationally and institute a hard slotting system. The players are tired of the service-time manipulation that keeps them from millions of dollars. The ever-present drug-testing issue lingers. Big-market owners are tired of subsidizing smaller-market teams which refuse to spend their share of revenue sharing.

And gathering more than any of those issues is MLB commissioner Bud Selig’s suggestion of realignment, which might as well be called The Plan to Rescue the Rays. Selig is not pushing realignment out of any particular affinity for Tampa Bay. More than a decade after the team arrived, it’s still an area masquerading as a big-league city, with tickets remaining for opening day less than a week out and a local radio station airing Yankees games 1,000 miles from the Bronx. Neither Tampa nor St. Petersburg, Fla., seems particularly inclined to publicly fund a new stadium, and without such revenues, the Rays will continue to take the Yankees’ welfare money and troll around baseball’s thrift store.

The thing that bugs me most about the idea of realignment is that it, like virtually every other concept dreamed up by baseball and the writers who follow it (and again, I will note that Passan is great at what he does, and generally has impressive perspective on the game’s key issues) can only see the present, and never think about all the ways in which the future could play out.

Would moving the Rays to a division with the Marlins, Royals, Pirates and Saskatchewan Roughriders help their chances of winning division titles? Certainly (although they might want to invest in a kicker who can score enough rouges to help in the late innings). But why should the Rays get special treatment? The Jays and Orioles have smart front offices working hard to rebuild once-dominant franchises, and they, every bit as much as the Rays, face the toughest task in all of North American team sports by going up against the cash- and brains-loaded Yankees and Red Sox. Do the Jays and O’s have to move too?

And if all three of those teams move, what happens to whichever clubs end up in the same division as the Yanks and Sox? Even teams like the Cardinals or Phillies, armed with impressive revenue streams and top-notch talent, are going to be at something of a disadvantage against baseball’s two juggernauts. One can only imagine the wreckage that would ensue if the Mets, who have access to huge revenue streams but run their team so incompetently that they make their fans eat stressballs to temporarily stave off their inevitable heart attacks, were to end up in the same division as the Sox and Yanks.

Realignment is an awful idea. Someone’s going to face a tough challenge, and it so happens to be the Rays, Jays and Orioles. Overcoming those obstacles is exactly what made the Rays’ 2008 season so magical. The Rays have learned to play the hand they’ve been dealt. It’s everyone else that’s having a meltdown about it.

The solutions are thin. Splitting up the Yankees and Red Sox is a non-starter. The floating realignment concept – offered by a panel Selig hand-picked to suggest improvements for the game – is ludicrous, something Selig full well realizes. Adding another wild card increases revenue but doesn’t get rid of an unbalanced schedule that forces the Rays to face teams with budgets two and three times their size – literally – 18 times while other American League teams get the Yankees and Red Sox as few as six times.

Why can’t baseball get rid of its unbalanced schedule? Does it help MLB and its teams to have 18 games played between division rivals? Has anyone ever examined all the implications – on-field and off- – of this set-up? I’m not even necessarily advocating for it (we all love to see the Yankees and Red Sox spend 5 hours a night bludgeoning each other to death, 18 times a year, after all), I’m just asking.

One reason Tampa Bay feels comfortable with Crawford’s imminent departure is Desmond Jennings, a 23-year-old who – because he is black and owns a football player’s build – draws immediate comparisons to Crawford. Jennings is the top prospect in a Rays system that is the envy of 29 teams. Wade Davis made the team as the No. 5 starter; right-hander Jeremy Hellickson will arrive midsummer at the latest; the Rays love Alex Torres (acquired in the Kazmir deal) as a left-handed specialist; and another wave, led by former No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham and minor-league strikeout leader Matt Moore, should arrive by 2013.

Exactly! The Rays have prospects coming out of their ears. So why all the gloom and doom? Let’s say this column had been written about the Astros a few years ago. Houston had won multiple division titles, led by a core of veteran stars. But everyone knew their farm system was barren and that eventually Bagwell and Biggio and Berkman and Oswalt would get older, and things would go south. That’s a concept that makes sense, even without the Yankees/Red Sox angle. But go sniff through Baseball America’s Web site for five minutes, or read John Sickels or Kevin Goldstein or Keith Law or any other top prospect writer. They all love what the Rays have in the pipeline.

Passan has his finger right on the answer to his own question. All the facts in his article are correct. But the thesis is all wrong. The Rays should be in big trouble because of the extraordinary challenges they face, given their limited means and their killer opponents. But they’re not. And that’s precisely because of the many, many great Rays players, both major league and minor league, that he’s cited in this piece.

Still, the implication in the Tampa are and other small markets is stark: Money wins, and baseball ought do to whatever it can to even out finances and reward teams such as the Rays for winning thanks to talent-acquisition acumen that doesn’t involve eight- and nine-digit contracts.

Baseball’s revenue-sharing system is so broken that it can actually penalize success by smaller-market clubs. No one will ever confuse Cleveland with Los Angeles. But when the Indians built a core of great, young talent, signed them to team-friendly contracts, built a beautiful new stadium and reeled off division titles in the 90s, they went from receiving revenue-sharing checks to paying out money. Meanwhile, the Angels, struggling for years with losing teams, despite playing in one of the biggest population centers in the country, began receiving revenue sharing money around that time.

That “baseball ought do to whatever it can to even out finances and reward teams such as the Rays” is a reasonable suggestion. But if the Rays suddenly won three World Series in a row, packed the Trop every night, built a new, lucrative stadium and became one of the glamour franchises in sports, they’d start paying for their success, rather than being rewarded for it.

For those who looked at the Rays on Aug. 29, 2009, confusion set in. Kazmir was the pitcher around whom Tampa Bay built its staff, twice an All-Star, four straight years with an ERA below 4.00, and here they were, only 4½ games back of Boston for the wild card, trading him.

The deal, even more than Crawford’s likely exit, typifies the Rays’ existence: When a player does not produce for what they’re paying him – Kazmir was due at least $22.5 million for this year and next – they get rid of him. Friedman, a 33-year-old who worked at Bear Stearns before becoming a baseball executive, forces himself to treat players like commodities because doing otherwise may compromise what little margin of error he is allowed.

Scott Kazmir seems like a reasonably nice guy. I enjoyed talking to him for the book, and generally speaking, I have great respect for anyone who’s good enough to rank among the top 0.001% in their field, regardless of what they do for a living. Kazmir certainly qualifies in that regard.

But in 2009, Scott Kazmir sucked. He put up an ERA of 4.89, with an xFIP of 4.88 that reinforced how badly he performed last year. There were extenuating circumstances, of course: Kazmir had struggled with injuries, and after working with pitching guru Rick Peterson on mechanical adjustments during an in-season DL stint, he showed flashes of his previous greatness. But again, Passan has the facts in front of him, yet reaches the wrong conclusion. At the time of the trade, the Rays were a huge long shot to make the playoffs, the player they were trading wasn’t all that good, and it was a rare chance to clear $22.5 million off the book, and acquire premium young talent in return.

The move predictably elicited criticism from some members of the mainstream media. It was also one of the smartest things the Rays have ever done, and that’s saying something.

PS: Scott Kazmir is back on the DL to start the 2010 season.

But Kazmir is right when he alludes to the reload-and-unload philosophy Oakland perfected during its early 2000s heyday. Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Dan Haren, Rich Harden, Ted Lilly, Jermaine Dye and plenty more passed through. The only star left from those teams is third baseman Eric Chavez, whom the A’s chose to sign to a long-term deal, and he has played in 121 games the past three years. Oakland last finished over .500 in 2006.

Using the A’s as an argument against the Rays’ chances for success greatly confuses me. Deploying the exact same thrifty techniques that Passan criticizes, the A’s made the playoffs four straight years and finished first or second in their division for eight straight years. Some guy wrote a book about them that sold a few copies, from what I hear.

Yes, they’re rebuilding now. But are baseball’s standards of success so warped that we need to have every low-revenue team win 90 games every season or they’re a failure? Great teams fade, they’re replaced by other great teams, and then others, and then others. The Royals and the Pirates will be good one day, the same way the Marlins won two World Series and the A’s won many division titles and the Twins (when they were poor, before ownership blackmailed local government into building them a stadium) were a perennial contender. And yes, there will be years when the Yankees and the Red Sox don’t make the playoffs.

The A’s are a success story for what they did, and the Rays are a success story for what they’re doing, even if, a few years down the road, their pipeline of great young talent dries up and they need to start over. So many people have written so many gloom and doom stories like this one over the years, only to see baseball continue to deliver great parity and new World Series winners every year, that you start to wonder if they’re living in an alternate universe where the Yankees are riding a 30-year World Series streak.

Yes, it’s not easy for poorer teams. But they find a way. Always have, always will.

Baseball’s crossroads is quite treacherous. Carl Crawford and the Rays deserve each other, and their relationship is practically forbidden under the current system. Then again, no viable alternative exists, nothing that will help this great team stuck in a meat-grinder division because of its geographical location. Which means Crawford will steal some bases, rap some hits and help the Rays contend this year.

And then he’ll do what he has to do because the sport gives him no other choice.

Best of luck, Carl Crawford. It’s been a pleasure. Can’t wait for the 2013 ALCS, when your Yankees play the Rays, and Desmond Jennings is doing everything you used to do, for millions less. And I look forward to the many columns sure to be written about the Rays’ unlikely success, how fleeting it is, and how they’ll be doomed when their new star left fielder becomes a free agent in 2017.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. ramedy permalink
    7 April 2010 2:35 pm

    The A’s provide another example that goes against Passan’s thesis. I know it’s hard to blame years of relative failure on one guy, but where could the A’s be without the Chavez contract weighing them down?

    I will say that this is one place where the big money is an unqualified benefit – a big contract bust can still hurt the Yankees or Red Sox short-term, but they can shrug it off and reboot pretty quickly. I honestly didn’t even realize Chavez was still with the A’s until I saw their craptastic opening day lineup.

    Unless Crawford gives the Rays a mind-blowing hometown discount – the kind that would cause the players association to ask questions – I’d honestly be a bit upset if the Rays signed him. I’m pretty sure Crawford is no Eric Chavez, but the Rays would still be one freak injury away from some bad financial times. No player is worth that risk.

  2. bpoe13 permalink
    7 April 2010 2:48 pm

    Excellent stuff Jonah,

    I could not be more excited for the year but I wondering if I was the only one also excited about the haul we could get should we fall out of contention this year. Maybe I am a sucker for prospects but we could restock an already top 5 organization with the returns on CC, Pena, Soriano and Pat B.

    Looking forward to the book,

    Poe

  3. 7 April 2010 4:17 pm

    If there isn’t a section in the book about the mind control Freidman et al. used to get Longo’s deal done, I…will probably just whine at you about it.

  4. Jonah permalink*
    7 April 2010 4:57 pm

    @Andy: There is indeed a sizable section about the Longoria contract and how it came to be.

    @Poe: If they’re in the race, still possible one or more of Pena-Crawford-Soriano get traded, but only if they’re not making a sizable near-term downgrade.

    @ramedy: Agreed, this is what makes the Mauer contract such an interesting debate. The Twins now have revenue sources that the Rays lack, but still.

  5. mrokjazztokyo permalink
    7 April 2010 9:57 pm

    JK, great post..BUT..do we really want to glorify the Rays management for fleecing Longoria like that? I mean, I would hope he has long fired his agent for that preposterous deal..Friedman and his boys may be financially savvy (though I’d challenge anyone who says the people are Bear Stearns of Goldman are worthy or our admiration!) and they know how to build a team..my comment descending into incoherence, will wait to read the opus then comment further. Spring 2011 you said?

  6. mrokjazztokyo permalink
    7 April 2010 10:22 pm

    Oh I forgot, am ordering my Curtis Granderson jersey now..Carl Crawford who??

Trackbacks

  1. [THE HANGOVER] The One Where We Discuss Cy Garza, Soriano’s Fastball And Whether The Rays Are The A’s | Rays Index

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