Sternberg has no choice, really. All of the numbers are moving against him. His players making the league minimum are becoming eligible for arbitration; his players formerly eligible only for arbitration are now also eligible to file for free agency. Like any good young team, his team is getting older, and more expensive. But the Rays’ revenues are not keeping up with their expenses. Attendance at Rays’ home games is static at best. The Rays’ TV ratings are up, but there’s no evidence that these ratings will improve the Rays’ bottom line. In short, Sternberg cannot afford a $72 million payroll, let alone the greater payroll that would be required to keep the current team together.
But it’s a shame, a damn shame. It shouldn’t be this way.
How will the Rays trim $22 million from their payroll? Consider that a number of Rays’ players are scheduled for pay increases in 2011. Ben Zobrist is due a $4 million increase. Evan Longoria gets a $1 million raise. Kelly Shoppach and David Price get modest salary increases. If the Rays are going to hold on to these players, then they’ll need to trim something more like $28 million from their payroll. How will they do it?
Understand, I am NOT an expert on the Rays. But we all assume that Carl Crawford will not be playing for Tampa in 2011. That will save the Rays about $10 million (based on Crawford’s 2010 salary), less the cost of his replacement. Also, Rob Neyer has reported that Matt Garza and James Shields may be traded to another team before 2011, as the Rays could replace these two starting pitchers with Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson. That’s $5.8 million more in potential savings, less the salaries of the players the Rays receive in return. Plus, Pat Burrell is gone; that’s another $9 million saved. These four cuts could save about $25 million. So at a payroll of $53 million, the Rays could still field a starting lineup of Upton, Bartlett, Aybar, Zobrist, Jaso, Pena, Longoria …
Not so fast. Jason Bartlett is eligible for arbitration. So is B.J. Upton, Dioner Navarro, J.P. Howell, Lance Cormier and Andy Sonnanstine. Some of these players can be retained in 2011 and some may have to go. The Rays also have Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano and Chad Qualls eligible for free agency at the end of this season. I’m not sure about Pena, but Soriano should have considerable value on the open market. Both may be gone after this season. Qualls was a trade-deadline acquisition, and he’s earning about $4.2 million in 2010, so let’s assume that he’s not coming back either.
Mark from TheRayArea.com (our newest affiliate on the SweetSpot network) figures that the Rays will have to jettison Crawford, Pena, Soriano, Willy Aybar, and perhaps Bartlett and Navarro. RaysIndex.com says that Joaquin Benoit may have to go, too. If you add Garza and Shields to this list, then as many as 9 key players from the Rays’ 2010 roster may not be playing for the Rays in 2011.
Nine key players gone, out of a 25-man roster, including 4 full-time starting position players, two starting pitchers and the closer. Translate this into Yankee players: Gardner, Teixeira, Rivera, Posada, Jeter, Hughes, Pettitte, and maybe a couple of other guys. It’s hard to imagine how a team could lose that much of its core, and remain competitive. Mark at TheRayArea.com put it this way, calmly and succinctly: “this is the last summer for these Rays.”
But it should not be this way. Not if revenue sharing worked the way it should work.
Consider: the purpose of revenue sharing is to permit small-revenue teams like the Rays to compete with big-revenue teams like the Yankees. Baseball has invested billions of dollars in revenue sharing, hundreds of millions of dollars every year for the last 10 years, enough to fund the annual payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox with a little bit left over. What do we have to show for this investment? In the ten years since revenue sharing was established, the Royals continued to lose, the Pirates continued to lose, the Marlins … the Marlins enjoyed a rapid rise to the top, were quickly dismantled and are now also-rans (.500 baseball). Up until 2008, the Rays continued to lose, too. But in 2008 the Rays emerged as a young, exciting team capable of standing toe-to-toe with the two richest and most successful teams in baseball. Now, it appears that this singular success story is going to end.
For heaven’s sake, why? For lack of $10 million or maybe $20 million? Remember, there’s $450 million distributed annually by baseball’s revenue sharing system. There’s plenty of money potentially available to save the 2010 version of the Rays. If the system could divert a bit of money from the Marlins, and a bit from the Pirates, the Rays could stay together another year, or two, or maybe longer. Maybe this would give the Rays enough time to build attendance, to find the financing for a new stadium … enough time for the Rays’ to implement a plan to increase local revenues to catch up with their payroll … enough time for the Rays to sustain their recent success, and for baseball to see a real return on the money invested in revenue sharing.
Instead, the revenue sharing system will allow the Rays to sink back into mediocrity. This is by design: revenue sharing provides the greatest rewards to teams that are losers and continue to be losers. Ownership of teams like the Pirates and Marlins, teams that finish near the bottom of the standings year after year, make healthy profits as a result.
And what happens to Stuart Sternberg, a good owner who actually put a good product on the field with limited resources in a small market? Sternberg loses money and is forced to dismantle his team. What did revenue sharing accomplish for Stuart Sternberg? It gave him the means to hold his 2008 squad together for an extra year, maybe two.
A system funded to the tune of $450 million a year ought to do better than this.