Can The Rays Cut Payroll And Still Compete?

Let’s start with four Tampa Bay Rays-related facts we know to be either true or at least have been recently publicly stated as such:

  1. The team’s 85 losses in 2014 were more than the franchise has had since 2007, when they were still the Devil Rays, had Brendan Harris, Akinori Iwamura and Delmon Young in the regular lineup, and were finishing off a run off 10 consecutive 90-plus-loss seasons.
  2. The two men most publicly associated with turning the franchise around, general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, both departed in the past month in search of higher salaries and greater visibility.
  3. The 2015 payroll, as disclosed by owner Stu Sternberg in September, is “clearly going to be lower” than the $76 million Opening Day figure it was this year, a franchise record that nonetheless ranked as one of the lowest numbers in baseball and was referred to by Sternberg as “an enormous aberration.” While there are plenty of very valid reasons not to shift blame to the fan base, this is no doubt impacted by a third consecutive season at the bottom of the average attendance standings.
  4. The battle to find the team a new stadium, clearly the main impediment towards long-term success and stability in the Tampa Bay area, continues to go nowhere, with a recent Tampa Bay Times editorial clearly showing the exhaustion and frustration with the issue, and forcing franchise officials to deal with rumors of a move to Montreal.

This isn’t all going to be doom-and-gloom, I promise, but it’s going to start out that way, because those four items are all irrefutably bad news. While new baseball boss Matt Silverman is well-respected and a replacement for Maddon hasn’t yet been named, it’s probably time to investigate the Rays as the offseason gets moving and ask the question: Have we seen the best this franchise has to offer? Has the miraculous run of success that lasted longer than anyone thought would finally come to an end?

The bad news

Let’s start with that payroll, and while we don’t know exactly what the 2015 payroll will be, we’ve seen this show before. According to Cot’s, in 2010 the team had a $72m payroll on Opening Day, and that was down all the way to $42m the next season. Even with David Price and Heath Bell off the payroll, there’s still a considerable amount of salary here:

Rays 2015 obligations
Contracts Arbitration*
Evan Longoria $11m Matt Joyce $4.9m
Ben Zobrist $7.5m Alex Cobb $4.5m
James Loney $7m Jeremy Hellickson $3.9m
Grant Balfour $7m Jake McGee $3.8m
David DeJesus $5m Desmond Jennings $3.2m
Yunel Escobar $5m Drew Smyly $3m
Ryan Hanigan $3.5m Logan Forsythe $1.2m
Matt Moore $3m
Jose Molina $2.75m *Figures via
Joel Peralta $2.5m MLBTR projections
Chris Archer $1m
Subtotal $55.25m Subtotal $24.6m
Total $79.85m

Not shown here, but to be remembered, is reliever Michael Kohn, who signed a major league in October for an unknown amount that’s likely less than a million dollars. Obviously, not all of those arbitration-eligible players will simply get their allotted raises, but for the moment, without even including the usual minimum salary types that round out a roster — in this case, guys like Wil Myers, Kevin Kiermaier, Jake Odorizzi, Brad Boxberger and others — and add a few million dollars a year, the 2015 Rays, with no improvements, are already looking at approximately $80 million.

Now, whether that $55.25m is money well-spent depends in large part on how well you believe some of these players can bounce back from down 2014 seasons. Longoria remains well underpaid for his value, but he also had the worst year of his career this year, fueled by a mysterious disappearance in his power and poor (for him) plate discipline. Balfour turns 37 next month and also had the worst year of his career, as he was unable to overcome declining velocity and ended up posting the second-highest BB% of any pitcher with 60 innings. No amount of pitch framing wizardry can overcome Molina’s .178/.230/.187 line; Loney’s slightly better than league average hitting at first base made him a slightly better than replacement player overall, and DeJesus missed months with a broken hand. Moore, of course, made only two appearances before blowing out his elbow.

So! That’s all problematic, and there’s not a ton of immediate help coming from the minors. The Rays don’t currently have any prospects in the MLB.com Top 100, and of the team’s current Top 10 prospects, only four have made it even to Double-A. Shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, attempting to come back from a 2013 knee injury, hit only .203/.287/.276 at Durham. Alex Colome showed some skill at Durham and made it to Tampa for a few starts, though his season began with a 50-game PED suspension. Infielder Ryan Brett also has a suspension on his resume, but performed well at Double-A and could see the bigs next year; pitcher Enny Romero had made a cameo for the Rays in 2013, but couldn’t get back in 2014.

It’s not a bad farm system, because guys like Nate Karns and Mikie Mahtook could contribute in 2015, and further-away players like Willy Adames and Justin O’Conner show great promise. There’s just not necessarily anyone who is making a big impact on the 2015 Rays, outside of maybe Colome, and that’s sort of the problem: A team that wasn’t that good last year, probably needs to dump money rather than make additions, and count count on a ton of help from the farm system might be in trouble.

The good news

So that’s the bad news. What’s the good news? There is good news here, trust me, and not just the fact that Friedman left behind Silverman and plenty of smart people when he left.

To start with, Steamer is pretty optimistic about bounce backs from all of those down seasons we talked about above. If you look at our current projections, which combine Steamer with our curated depth charts, the Rays actually have the sixth-most WAR in baseball. There’s a pretty serious caveat to come with that, which is that the Rays have enough players under contract right now to field a regular team if they needed to, and other teams will be filling their obvious holes — Giants at 3B, Dodgers/Yankees at SS, etc. — as the winter goes on. But it’s also because outside of DH, Steamer likes each position to be league-average at worst, including a rebound season from Longoria and valuable years from Kiermaier and Myers.

There’s also this: Base Runs, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite tools on the site, thought the 2014 Rays should have been better than they were, figuring that the 77-85 record, when removed from sequencing and context, could have been 83-79, the third-biggest difference in MLB.

The rotation, even without Price, is young and talented. Archer, Cobb, and Odorizzi have all proven themselves to be worthwhile major league starters, and none is going to be older than 27 next year, and Smyly was impressive after coming from Detroit. Moore will be back at some point in the summer, and Karns and Colome are internal options as well. Even Hellickson might be in the mix, though he seems like an obvious option to be moved if payroll is truly an issue.

But payroll is an issue, of course, so Hellickson could be on the way out, and Joyce’s increasing salary combined with his ongoing power decline might make him too pricy to hang on to. An easy way to clear salary would be to trade Ben Zobrist, who has only one more year left on his contract now that his option has been picked up, pocket the prospects, and allow Nick Franklin, Brett and Forsythe to combine at second base. That would work, easily. It’d also make the 2015 product worse, most likely. It’s never easy to compete and tighten the belt, simultaneously.

If the Rays aren’t very good in 2015, you can already imagine how many “Friedman and Maddon took the magic with them” stories are going to be generated, but that’s a far-too-easy narrative. There’s a lot to like about these Rays, certainly. There’s also a considerable amount of issues, ones that wouldn’t have been avoided simply by having Friedman and Maddon calling the shots. But hey: At least they finally dumped Josh Lueke.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

42 Comments
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Licksie Mule
9 years ago

I’ve heard the idea of trading Longoria to the Red Sox a couple times around the interwebs. At first it sounds crazy, but would the Rays really be able to turn down a deal like Allen Craig, Garin Cecchini, Deven Marrero, and Rubby De la Rosa for Longoria? The Red Sox could part with even more if necessary. Interdivisional trades almost never happen, but hey this could make a lot of sense for both teams.

LHPSU
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

I don’t think the Rays want any part of Allen Craig, even as a throw-in.

Robert
9 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Lets not forget that as of 2 years ago,Craig was a good hitter. He is still young and if he gets healthy, he could be a contributor.

arc
9 years ago
Reply to  Robert

He’s 30 years old.

“If he gets healthy, he could be a contributor” does not describe a high value asset. As-is, he has negative value. If the Red Sox pay all of his salary, he has modest value as a wild card.

Matt
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

Yes they would turn that down without blinking. That’s tremendously underwhelming for Longoria. Replace Craig with Swihart and maybe..

Lenard
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

No way the Rays want Craig.

But who says no if the Sox offered Boegarts, Cecchini and an lottery ticket A-ball arm or two?

Bonus Wagner
9 years ago
Reply to  Lenard

The Red Sox say no. They’re not unloading Boegarts or Betts. That’s simply not happening, especially if they’re taking on the entirety of the contract.

arc
9 years ago
Reply to  Lenard

Boston if only because they would hate to supply the Rays with a potential cheap superstar – a necessary condition if the Rays are ever to be a force again.

Eminor3rd
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

Yes, they would absolutely be able to turn that deal down.

Licksie Mule
9 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

Well, I am not so sure. Both Craig and Longoria are coming off of disappointing seasons, both are injury prone, and both are modestly priced and locked up long term. In previous seasons, Craig was actually the superior hitter. Craig fell a long way last year, and I don’t expect him to outperform Longoria offensively moving forward (and certainly not overall) but it could happen. Rubby De la Rosa is a solid arm and it isn’t uncommon for the Rays to see something that others don’t (Drew Smyly comes to mind). If you don’t like Rubby though, fill the spot with Eduardo Rodriquez or Ranaudo, or Barnes, or some combination of arms. Cecchini and Marrero meanwhile, are high quality prospects at skilled positions that the Rays currently have black holes at prospect wise. I mean, Marrero is one of the best defensive SS prospects in baseball at the moment. He wouldn’t be just a half-assed throw in. While it’s improbable, the Rays would certainly have reason to at least consider trading Longo to the Sox.

arc
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

Both Craig and Longoria are coming off of disappointing seasons

That’s so disingenuous.

Allen Craig’s disappointment was a -1.5 WAR season. His peak, which lasted only three years, was ~2.5 WAR per year.

Evan Longoria’s disappointment was a 3.4 WAR season. His peak, which has been ever since he played in the MLB, was 5-7 WAR per year.

Evan Longoria’s disappointments are a full win better than Allen Craig’s greatest career achievements.

Joe McMahon
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

A deal between those two teams might make sense, sure, but not for a haul that awful. Craig has negative value to the Rays, take him out immediately. You’re trying to offer 3 decent prospects, but none of which are stars or even in the Red Sox top 5 prospects, for one of the best 3B of our generation would had a down season and STILL put up 3.4 WAR. You would need to offer AT LEAST Blake Swihart and a better pitcher like Henry Owens or Eduardo Rodriguez. Then add a 2-3 more solid players to that and you might get the Rays to call you back.

arc
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

It’s amazing to me that this could be a serious suggestion. Evan Longoria is one of the best players in the game and has a friendly contract. Your proposal is:

A wildcard at best in Allen Craig (assuming Sox pay salary)
A 23 y/o former top 50 prospect coming off a bust year
A fringe top 100 defensive shortstop
A young back-end arm with high upside, and high risk

When do trades like this ever happen? It is *completely* one-sided. Even if the Rays were going to trade Longoria to Boston, it would absolutely be for one of their several top 50 prospects and two or more of their several top 100 prospects. At worst.

Robert
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

I like this idea. First,his contract isn’t bad, and he is still young. Often, players need a change of venue,starting out fresh in a new town. Fenway could improve his numbers. Sure, that’s a great trade.

arc
9 years ago
Reply to  Robert

Good of you to have an open mind to acquiring one of the best players in baseball on a team-friendly contract for a pile of quarters.

Sandy Kazmir
9 years ago
Reply to  Licksie Mule

Obvious troll is obvious. Do better.