Who’s running my team: Tampa Bay Rays

One of a series of articles looking at the front office structure of each major league team. Today, we take a closer look at the Tampa Bay Rays.

Tampa Bay Rays

  • Owner: Stuart Sternberg
  • President: Matthew Silverman
  • Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager: Erik Neander

Stuart Sternberg is one of the game’s least-known top executives. Yet if Major League Baseball ever creates an ownership Mount Rushmore, his face ought to get strong consideration for inclusion.

Sternberg is a Wall Street investor who purchased the team from the original owner, Vincent Naimoli, in 2004. During Naimoli’s seven years of ownership, the Tampa Bay Rays had gone nowhere, compiling just a .399 winning percentage, only once escaping the AL East Cellar or winning as many as 70 games.

Before assigning responsibility for this chronic failure entirely to Naimoli, consider what any owner of the Tampa Bay franchise is up against. Among MLB’s 30 teams, here’s where Tampa Bay ranks in several normally pivotal measures of fiscal health.

Tampa Bay Rays                             Rank

Franchise value                 $1.01 billion        29th

2019 revenue                    $228 million        28th

Metro population               3.0 million          22nd

Market revenue                $357 million        26th

Brand revenue                   $  73 million        29th

Stadium revenue              $114 million        29th

In the face of that series of numerical obstacles, the wonder isn’t that Naimoli failed but that anybody could succeed. Yet that is what Sternberg has done. Since taking over in 2005, Sternberg’s Rays have a .508 winning percentage, with two division titles and five post-season appearances.

And if you discount the three seasons it took the front office to lay a proper foundation, the Rays’ winning percentage since 2008 leaps to .532.

Sternberg organized the process by which this transformation was accomplished in the most basic way possible: by hiring smart, baseball-wise people and then getting out of their way. That began with the hiring of Silverman, a Sternberg associate during his years at Goldman-Sachs who was named team president when Sternberg bought controlling interest.

A Harvard grad with a degree in economics, Silverman never played a day of professional ball. But he knows how to hire. Among the people he brought into the sport are the current leaders of four franchises: Andrew Friedman (Los Angeles Dodgers), Chaim Bloom (Boston Red Sox), Tampa GM Erik Neander, and Jim, Click, hired Monday as the new general manager of the Houston Astros.

When Friedman departed for LA following the 2014 season, Silverman assumed GM duties himself for two seasons before elevating Neander.

Despite all of the inherent financial obstacles confronting a Tampa Bay franchise, the Sternberg-Silverman Rays succeed because they have come to grips with one of the game’s most salient facts: Money is useful, but not determinative.

Put another way, wasting resources is easy, as drunken sailors have been demonstrating for centuries. It takes talent to husband resources. That’s the common denominator uniting Silverman, Friedman and Neander: talent.

Consider Tampa’s five post-season appearances, in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2019. The Rays’ average rank in player payroll for those five post-season teams was 26th. In 2019, Silverman, Neander and field manager Kevin Cash took Tampa Bay into the post-season with 96 victories despite having the lowest payroll in all of MLB, just $64.18 million.

The unifying denominator has been efficiency. Consider another chart, this one comparing the short-term impact of each general manager’s moves – as determined by the net change in Wins Above Average* – on the team’s fate during those five playoff seasons. The table shows the GM, the short-term impact of his player moves, and the number of games by which the Tampa Bay Rays qualified for post-season play during those five seasons. The result is eye-opening:

                 General Mgr.       WAA impact       Post-season margin

2008       Friedman             +5.7 games         8 games

2010       Friedman             +8.5 games         7 games

2011       Friedman             +9.6 games         1 game

2013       Friedman             +8.6 games         1 game

2019       Neander              +8.5 games         3 games

In four of those five successful seasons, the value of the moves made by the Rays front office exceeded the margin by which the team reached post-season play.  In other words, the GM overhauled a team that otherwise wouldn’t have been good enough to play October baseball and made it good enough.

Rays GMs have done that four times just in the past decade. Do you want context? Here’s context. Over the same decade, moves made by the combined efforts of the Yankee, Red Sox, Dodger and Astros front offices also maneuvered their teams into post-season play four times.

A quick revisit of some of the underlying demographics facing the Rays, particularly compared with their larger divisional rivals, underscores just how remarkable this ongoing ability has been. Here’s the chart we looked at a few paragraphs back, but this time with the data for Tampa’s two behemoth AL East rivals laid alongside. As you scan this, keep in mind the average per-season win totals for each team across that decade: Yankees 92.1, Red Sox 87.2, Rays 86.1.

                                               Rays                       Yankees               Red Sox

Franchise value                 $1.01 billion           4.60 billion        $3.20 billion

2019 revenue                    $228 million        $668 million        $516 million

Metro population               3.0 million            20.3 million           4.6 million

Market value                     $357 million        $2.158 billion       $1.414 billion

Brand value                       $  73 million         $815 million         $532 million

Stadium value                  $114 million         $995 million         $685 million

Yet the Rays have produced six 90-win seasons, as many as the Yankees and one more than the Red Sox.

Going forward, the challenge for Sternberg and Silverman particularly is doing what they can to upgrade the club’s chronic revenue problems. By their plan, that begins with a new and vastly more productive stadium, ideally in Tampa but possibly somewhere else. Indeed, Silverman last year floated the idea of splitting the team’s base between Tampa and Montreal, a city abandoned by MLB 15 years ago.

That Tampa at present is spotting its principal adversaries between a half billion and $800 million in stadium revenues is the best argument for attempting to change those realities, which for the record will never be eliminated entirely.

The best argument against the Tampa Bay Rays contention that they need a new facility is the team’s performance in their present dump. If Silverman and Neander have proven anything, it’s that money is not the chief determinant of success. Although they would be quick to point out, it’s not exactly a vice.

Next: Philadelphia Phillies vs. New York Mets for 2020

*This calculation is obtained by determining the net impact of player transactions on team performance for the season(s) in question. Wins Above Average is a zero-based offshoot of Wins Above Replacement; thus, the final figure suggests the degree of positive or negative movement in the standings attributable to front office moves.

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