Olde Man's Tavern: Rays Place

Been a nice little run they’ve had down there in Tampa over the last three years. Nice little run. An American League title and two AL East crowns. The development of a face for the franchise in Evan Longoria. A former #1 overall pick that placed 2nd in the 2010 AL Cy Young voting in David Price.

It’s a shame that it could all come crashing down.

The Tavern heads to Tampa, Florida and the home of the Tampa Bay Rays and Tropicana Field. Within is an office held by the Andrew Friedman, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations. Kind of a fancy name for general manager, I guess.

You see, Friedman has a tough job ahead of him. The Rays must find a way to replace a few lost assets with lower salary players and hope the replacements perform to the same level. But that may not be the toughest job.

The first is a drastically lower payroll in which to work with for the 2011 season. On opening day of 2010, the payroll sat at $72.8 million. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg ordered a significant slashing of the payroll for 2011. It was almost a necessary evil. Costs had to be reeled in and the payroll is always the first place because it is so large a portion of a franchise’s expenses. According to Baseball Reference, that payroll for 2011 as of this post would be an estimated $48.1 million. That’s not a slash. That’s screams of needing a tourniquet. Dispatching roughly $24 million, or approximately one-third.

The main asset the Rays lost may have been left fielder Carl Crawford. Well, the highest paid one. The Rays were in no way able to re-sign their All-Star. No way. The Boston Red Sox hopped on the opportunity and signed Crawford to a lengthy 7-year, $142 million deal. Yes, more than Jayson Werth.

Another is the popular first baseman Carlos Pena. Pena was popular in the clubhouse and community. While he suffered a drop off in numbers in 2010, his power will not be easily replaced. To put it bluntly, it won’t be replaced. Pena latched on with the Chicago Cubs on a one year deal worth $10 million. Not bad for a guy that hit 0.196 in 2010.

And who’s going to be the Rays closer in 2011? Not Rafael Soriano who coming off his best season as a major leaguer wanted to make the big bucks now. After a decent year in Atlanta in 2009, Soriano signed a one-year contract with Tampa Bay prior to 2010. He’s now proven he can be a dominant closer and wanted to be paid as such. Fortunately for Soriano, the Yankees had a lot of extra cash on hand after whiffing on Cliff Lee and some other big name free agents. While he won’t get a shot to close, unless something tragic happens to Mo Rivera, Rafael did get $35 million over 3-years to be a set-up man.

The guy that setup for Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, is gone via free agency as well. He landed in Detroit. Jason Bartlett was dealt to the San Diego Padres.

Matt Garza was dealt to the Cubs in a move to not only lower the Rays payroll, but also to bolster the farm system. Mission accomplished on both fronts as the Rays received Chris Archer, who some perceived as the Cubs #1 pitching prospect, as well as Robinson Chirinos, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld. It also provided a clear path for Jeremy Hellickson to become a full-timer.

But the player losses could pale in the potential loss of fans attending Rays home games. Here’s how the Rays have performed in that area over the last five years.

Year Attendance AL Rank W-L AL East Finish Payroll (in mill)
2010 1,864,999 9th 96-66 1st $72.8
2009 1,874,962 11th 84-78 3rd $63.3
2008 1,811,986 12th 97-65 1st $43.7
2007 1,387,603 14th 66-96 5th $24.1
2006 1,368,950 14th 61-101 5th $35.4

The severely low numbers in ’06 and ’07 are logical given that people won’t usually flock to see a 100 loss team, let alone a 96 loss team. It appeared that the Rays as an organization turned a corner prior to 2008. In late 2005, Sternberg came in and made wholesale changes. He increased payroll (yes, you read that correctly) and dumped $20 million toward improvements at the Trop. The most obvious changes were to the team name – from Devil Rays to Rays – and the color scheme. All these changes did create some buzz about the team. There was this guy at third named Longoria that added to the buzz. The slow climb uphill was commencing, right?

Not so much. All of that didn’t really create much buzz as had hoped. The attendance for ’09 was only slightly higher compared to ’08. Even though the Rays won the division last season, attendance actually dropped. In fact, the Rays literally had to give tickets away to boost attendance and all that comes with that. Despite winning the AL East in 2010, it was not a pretty year in St. Pete.

Tropicana Field Panorama

Anyone home? (Image: bryce_edwards via Flickr)

And the woes will continue. Of the number of reasons that has seen attendance remain so low is the perception of the Trop being in a bad location. Some claim it’s not in the best of areas. Others say it’s not easily accessible. Others will voice that the Trop is just not cut out for hosting MLB games. The catwalk is always a potential issue as a game is being played.

So if I attempt to put one and one together here. The Rays are slashing payroll in order to save money. The team will, by most accounts, not be competitive in 2011, thereby lowering attendance in a stadium that holds a myriad of issues. The result? Who knows.

Just last month the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce unanimously approved to create a study group for the potential of the construction of a new stadium. The group will reach out to both the public and private sector to inquire of potential financing. Nothing will be in stone. It’s a study group and nothing more. These can lag on forever. Years, in fact.

The biggest battle on this front is the location of a possible new home for the Rays. I mentioned some of the common complaints about the Trop. Roy Peter Clark in a special to the St. Petersburg Times, authored a look into just that issue.

In the case of the Rays, we hear the problem is our stadium. The Trop, we are told, is dull and old, a concrete mausoleum in a bad neighborhood too close to the police station with nothing else to do nearby and too far from Tampa, requiring perilous journeys across a narrow bridge over shark-infested waters!

The only way for the Rays to compete against the super-rich Yankees and Red Sox, we are told, is to build a Taj Mahal of Base-Bahal in a location more central to the regional population, which, they say is in Hillsborough County. Where the Bucs play.

All sounds plausible…until you read Clark’s next paragraph.

But wait. Isn’t there something wrong with this equation? Didn’t we just go through a Buccaneers regular season in which not a single home game sold out, creating television blackouts and spoiling our beer-swilling, chip-munching Sunday traditions?

Are you following that? Clark is pointing his finger in one and only one direction … the fans. Sounds like the Rays aren’t Tampa’s only team that can’t generate a large and devoted fanbase.

According to Nielsen’s 2009-2010 market rankings, of the 25 US cities that host an MLB team (there are four markets that have two teams), the Tampa/St. Pete area ranks 14th overall, or just a little below the middle. With an estimated number of TV homes at 1.8 million, it would seem feasible that there are the people to create a fanbase. It’s not a stretch. It’s almost a fact. Look at the markets that are behind Tampa/St. Pete:

  • Minneapolis/St. Paul (4 pro teams): 15th
  • Denver (4 pro teams): 16th
  • Miami/Ft. Lauderdale (4 pro teams): 17th

Those are the three markets immediately behind Tampa/St. Pete. Some have had struggles while others have not, but notice what all those four have in common. They all support a franchise in each of the four major sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL). Smaller markets supporting more teams. Sounds to me that Clark is pressing a correct button here.

What’s in the cards for the Rays organization?

They still hold some good, young talent in Longoria, Hellickson, Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and David Price. The cupboard isn’t completely bare with the prospects they received. Doug Gray on RedsMinorLeagues.com created a chart and rated the Rays farm system as #2 overall. Only the Kansas City Royals rated higher. There is hope, but for how long?

Without a strong fanbase, the Rays may be destined to relocation. I’m not just talking about within the Tampa area either. I’m talking completely out of the market. But I’m also not talking about how the Colts bolted from Baltimore either. There is a certain decorum that must be followed.

Still, you have to wonder if Tampa and the Rays have any type of future together.

Tags: Carl Crawford Carlos Pena David Price Desmond Jennings Evan Longoria Jason Bartlett Jeremy Hellickson Joaquin Benoit Matt Garza Rafael Soriano Tampa Bay Rays

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