Guest Post: Jeff Passan’s Rebuttal
Yesterday, Yahoo national baseball writer Jeff Passan wrote a column expressing his disappointment that Carl Crawford would soon be leaving the Tampa Bay Rays and that small-revenue teams in general continue to face an uphill climb against the richest teams in baseball. Being the Rays junkie that I am and an incorrigible optimist, I felt the need to respond with a really long blog post.
Today, Jeff was gracious enough to write a rebuttal to my rebuttal, for publication here at JonahKeri.com. Jeff continues to be both a great writer and a mensch, as you’ll see below. As Jeff noted in his email to me last night, he (and I) greatly enjoyed this bout of Jew-on-Jew violence.
I love Jonah Keri’s optimism. I really do. I miss mine.
Some time over the past decade, it died. I write about sports, and accordingly, I write about money, and the two make horrible bedfellows. Money is why we remain subjected to the corrupt BCS, and it is why the NCAA wants to water down its basketball tournament even more, and it is why I see horror in the Tampa Bay Rays’ future.
This saddens me. I like Andrew Friedman. He is a no-BS businessman with an acute eye for baseball, the sort of modern executive who transitions from sabermetrics to scouting like someone who fits in at a Jay-Z concert as well as the opera. I like Joe Maddon. He is a thoughtful man who plays the limited-government card with his players and still earns respect among a roomful of millionaires. I like the Rays organization. It fights baseball’s two biggest behemoths, New York and Boston, and doesn’t emerge with a black eye like every other team that has tried.
And yet no matter how much I want to root for the underdog, I always flash back to a scene in “The Wire” when I think about the Rays.
(SPOILER ALERT!!! SKIP THE NEXT FEW GRAFS IF YOU HAVEN’T YET WATCHED ALL OF THE WIRE.)
Jimmy McNulty, the morally and ethically bankrupt cop who serves as the series’ heart, is sitting on a park bench with Bodie Broadus, a gangster who knows he’s about to get killed. Bodie is talking about his life on the corner: How he did everything right, followed the rules, played it as well as he could have – and here he was, still with no chance.
“This game is rigged, man,” Bodie says. “We like the little bitches on the chess board.”
“Pawns,” McNulty says.
(END OF SPOILER)
That’s the Rays. They’re pawns in this big baseball game. Sometimes, when the board breaks right, they can sneak across and become queens. But it’s rare. Most of the time, they move forward one square at a time and eventually get knocked out while the Yankees and Red Sox of the world hop forward, backward, diagonally –wherever they please.
Jonah’s optimism makes him believe the Rays will be queens in the coming years, and that is fine. I envy his ability to think that way. He enjoys how special the Rays are compared to the rest of baseball.
I’m just troubled that we have to look at what they’re doing as special.
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.
Sorry, but I’ll say it again: Carl Crawford is, very simply, the Tampa Bay Rays. Because the Rays today are such a cuddly story – a beautifully constructed ballclub in a town that doesn’t appreciate them, a small-market powerhouse that stayed true to the tenets of scouting and player development to great rewards, a bunch of likeable guys – we tend to forget the days of Vince Naimoli and Jose Canseco and Bryan Rekar.
The Rays are not the last two-plus years. They are a decade of impossibly bad baseball done right. Their story can’t be told with Evan Longoria or Ben Zobrist or Matt Garza or Carlos Pena. It can, however, be told with Carl Crawford, the team’s second-round pick in its second season of existence, selected in the same draft as Josh Hamilton. He saw the losing from near and far, experienced futility in ways Longoria could never dream, lived life as baseball dregs before savoring its zenith. If somebody is going to write the oral history of the Rays – somebody aside from Jonah, I mean – it is Carl Crawford, who not only sat front and center but played an integral part in the franchise’s resurrection.
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?
I’m not saying Carl Crawford at $15 million a year beats Dez Jennings at $400,000. Let’s remember, though, that the road is strewn with the carcasses of failed prospects. And more important, Crawford isn’t just a guy in Tampa Bay. He means something.
Perhaps this is my innocence peeking through. Somehow, I’ve retained that, even as my optimism drifted. As much as I value objective valuation, I also remember what it was like to be an Indians fan growing up and to see player after player leave. It was depressing. It didn’t matter who they had to replace Albert and Manny and Thome. To develop a $15 million-a-year player only to see him walk because of a game’s inequities sucks, even if it is the right business move.
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 … 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.
It was a brushstroke of genius. No question. The Rays took a minimal risk – bigger for them than most, but still – and won.
It’s also never going to happen again. The union despised the Longoria contract then, and it hates it even more now. The Rays happened to find a player…I’m not going to say dumb enough, because I’d love to be so stupid that I earned tens of millions of dollars, but risk-averse enough to sacrifice, oh, probably $75 million to $100 million when it the final option year ends. Don’t play it for anything else than what it is: They got extremely lucky with Longoria, and to expect the same in the future is foolish.
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.
This gets back to the previous point. The Rays Kool-Aid must be mighty tasty.
Now, this bears repeating: Friedman is an excellent executive with a firm grasp of what it takes to succeed, as is the Rays’ president, Matt Silverman. I met R.J. Harrison my first year covering baseball, when he was a national crosschecker, and have been thrilled at his success as scouting director. The valuation team with the Rays is nonpareil.
But what about Pat Burrell? And Edwin Jackson? The point: They are fallible. These are men with a tight budget and an excessive amount of maneuvering, and to expect them to operate at this absurdly high level over the long term is naïve.
Billy Beane is a very bright man. The AL West-dominating A’s teams he and David Forst built were fascinating, not just because of the tenets espoused in Moneybal but because they succeeded in a hypercompetitive environment where 30 teams spend tens of millions of dollars trying to outwit each other. The A’s outwitted everyone. They gamed the game.
And then it caught up. This is natural. All it takes is one team to recognize the method to another’s madness and the jig is up. It’s a fallacy that the Rays built all this on high draft picks. That was part of it, sure, but it is also Matt Moore in the eighth round and Jennings in the 10th. If the Rays keep that up, it blows up my entire thesis. No team has ever sustained such a great record of late-round success over a long period of time. So while hopefully that can continue, I’m not confident it will, especially with MLB seemingly intent on trying to evenly distribute amateur talent via the international draft, which would stretch the already budget-conscious Rays into dangerously thin territory.
Realignment is an awful idea.
Amen. If that point didn’t come across, oops. Guess I’ve got another column to write.
The Rays have prospects coming out of their ears. So why all the gloom and doom?
Well, TINSTAAPP, for one, and the sheer fickleness of kids on the other. Jonah, you’ve read Rany Jazayerli’s study on draft picks and countless others’ research on prospects. It’s dangerous to assume anything about them.
Even so, I’ve noticed a slight bend in the hardcore sabermetric community toward assigning great value to a $400,000 player. I understand this. He costs $400,000. Even a bum will put up a WAR relative to that salary. Thus, if you can have someone put up more performance for the dollar, you’d be stupid not to.
At the same time, I wonder the source of such blind faith. We know minor league numbers are a decent predictor for major league success. We also know that they are by no means foolproof. Which, again, brings us back to the risk: Tampa Bay is forced, by its economic standing, to take significantly more risk – on contracts, on youth, even on marketing – than the Yankees. And that is the heart of the inequity in baseball that makes me down not on the Rays but the sport: the lower the revenues, the greater the risks necessary to achieve greatness.
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.
Again, the optimism. Jonah is confident a great minor leaguer – does such a thing exist, and if so, is he named Jeff Manto? – can replace a great major leaguer for a fraction of the price, and I’ve seen far too many can’t-miss prospects miss badly.
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 flowed flashes of his previous greatness. But again, Passan has the facts in front of him, yet reaches the wrong conclusion.
My inclusion of this point came straight from Andrew Friedman: “Do you want to know what it’s like to run this team? Look at the Kazmir deal.”
Scott Kazmir is a 26-year-old left-hander who throws 90-94 with an average to a tick above slider and an improving changeup. Before last year, when he was hurt, he averaged 9.75 strikeouts per nine over 124 starts. He is a commodity. If he wasn’t, the Angels wouldn’t have given up three good prospects for him.
The Kazmir deal drew criticism from the mainstream media not because of its timing or even the player dealt but because of the implication, which Friedman himself confirmed to me: The Rays cannot afford even the slightest mistake, and a potentially sub-standard Kazmir, at $22.5 million over two years, would be crippling. The Rays’ financial distress forces Friedman to be the world’s most impatient fisherman. He is always looking to cut bait, and that he found a willing partner in the Angels – a team more than happy to take an $11 million-a-year risk on Kazmir – illustrates the disparity between the two franchises.
When it came down to it, no matter how brilliant the Rays were in acquiring Scott Kazmir and getting four solid years out of him, in the end they were forced to sell him because they play in a piece-of-crap building and can’t engage a fan base that doesn’t know what it’s missing, and anything short of a World Series victory won’t change that.
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?
Well, yeah. Ask players. Ask management. Ask fans. Low-revenue, high-revenue or otherwise, if a team does not make the postseason, it’s a failure. And for some, even that standard is too low.
A few days ago, I was talking with Jayson Werth about last season. The Phillies, who beat the Rays in the World Series two years ago, lost in 2009 to the Yankees. And as good as the feeling of winning was, Werth said, the pain of losing – of failure, no matter what the level – stuck with him even more. Teams want to win so they can win, sure. But they also want to win so they don’t have to experience losing.
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.
I talked about innocence earlier. I bet Jonah and I both spend a lot of time thinking about innocence. He has twin babies, I have a 2-year-old son. We see them grow, and we want the best for them, and we want to keep them in that state where there isn’t a worry in the world, where life is rapturous, and where the Tampa Bay Rays can compete over the long haul without any artificial help from a trigger-happy commissioner. We want to believe Carl Crawford can spend his career with the Rays, just as he wants to believe it, just as everyone from Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman to the guy wearing a Rayhawk or an eponymously named jersey want to believe it.
Optimism takes a set of facts and assigns positive feelings to them, and if Jonah wants to think that the Rays’ pipeline will continue flowing like the Druzhba and that Friedman and Harrison and Co. will continue their incredible run and Sternberg won’t significantly cut payroll thanks to Tampa/St. Petersburg apathy and the money that is spent will be done wisely – if he wants to believe all that, well, bless his heart.
The poorer teams will prevail. They always do. Just not the same ones. If it does happen to be the Rays – the team with so many obstacles ahead – I’ll gladly write about how wrong I was. And I’ll do it with a big grin, my innocence still intact.