In our previous installments in this series, we looked at teams like the Yankees (trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold), the Marlins (holding a fire sale because of new ownership), and the Diamondbacks (looking at a skyrocketing payroll figure). But today we’re looking at the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that is basically subsisting on revenue sharing and other MLB-centric funds, like the national TV deals, to exist.
It may seem like there-but-for-the-grace-of-God that as a Pirate supporter I’m calling another team paupers, but the Rays really are a barebones team. The prevailing theory on why the Rays never have money is that their stadium effectively has cut off the Tampa portion of their fanbase, due to its location in St. Pete via a bridge that is only slightly easier to get to than the island of Dr. Moreau. Add in the fact that the Trop is probably the worst stadium in MLB (toss up with the A’s, I guess) and that is why their attendance is so bad. The Rays will come up with a site plan and a cool artistic rendering of a proposed stadium every couple of years, but it always falls through. At this point, if the latest Ybor City neighborhood location doesn’t work out, I’d be fine with them moving to a city like Charlotte. Florida is just not a pro sports state, as they support college teams to a much greater degree.
Tampa’s franchise-high payroll was $76M in 2014 and they were said to have lost millions that year in doing so. Last year, their Opening Day payroll was $70M. For 2018, once you factor in their pre-existing salary commitments, their arbitration-eligible players, and the minimum-scale guys to fill out the roster, they’re projected at $84M. Unless owner Stuart Sternberg has a change of heart, it’s safe to say that some pruning to the payroll will be done. Here’s the projected arbitration salaries, via MLB Trade Rumors:
- Adeiny Hechavarria (5.060) ? $5.0MM
- Dan Jennings (4.171) ? $2.5MM
- Corey Dickerson (4.101) ? $6.4MM
- Brad Miller (4.094) ? $4.4MM
- Xavier Cedeno (4.060) ? $1.4MM
- Jake Odorizzi (4.042) ? $6.5MM
- Jesus Sucre (3.137) ? $1.3MM
- Chase Whitley (3.099) ? $1.0MM
- Alex Colome (3.118) ? $5.5MM
- Steven Souza (3.072) ? $3.6MM
- Matt Duffy (3.059) ? $900K
The good news for Pirates fans is that the Rays have a whole host of players that could help the team, even after you factor out the ones they definitely won’t deal. Chris Archer would be an upgrade to any rotation in MLB, but the Rays aren’t going to move him. He’s young and cheap with lots of team control (options go out to 2021). Likewise, defensive wizard Kevin Kiermaier would really be intriguing to watch patrol PNC’s center field, but the same theory applies. The Rays aren’t rebuilding, they’re just having a yard sale. Franchise icon, 3B Evan Longoria, is also not going anywhere. Not only is he Mister Ray, but I would be a little leery about taking on his contract that ends in 2022 at $19.7M when he will be in his age-36 season.
At a projected arb-2 salary of $7M, Jake Odorizzi is the Rays’ priciest of their 11 arbitration-eligible players. He’s also coming off a career-worst season in 2017, by pitching only 143 innings over 28 starts (just a shade over 5 innings/start) and had an ERA/FIP of 4.14/5.43. Odorizzi isn’t a game changer in the rotation for the Pirates, but at his best from 2014-16, he was a solid #4 pitcher. Odorizzi is an extreme flyball pitcher (33.7% groundball rate), so that would represent something of a paradigm shift for Neal Huntington.
By adding him to the rotation, while hoping that he can get a bounce going from the AL to the NL, you can bolster the bullpen by shifting either Chad Kuhl or Trevor Williams. If you believe that Odorizzi can equal Kuhl or Williams’ production, then for $6.5M you fix two issues. That’s roughly the same $6.5M, plus or minus a million, it would take you to sign either Tommy Hunter or Anthony Swarzak. Six of one, half dozen of the other.
Alex Colome is only entering his first year of arbitration, but he’s projected to cost $5.5M, due in large part to the 84 saves he’s accumulated in his young career. Since he’s also ‘Rays-pricey’, they may be interested in dealing him for an array of young talent to keep their shoestring operation functioning and turning to someone else as their closer, as they’ve already traded Brad Boxberger to the Diamondbacks.
Colome was a starter all through the minors and has started a handful of games at the Major League level, too, but since becoming a full-time closer in 2016 he’s excelled. The soon-to-be 29-year old has a blazing 95 mph fastball that he complements with a 90 mph cutter to great effect. Colome would immediately step in to the setup role with the Pirates and form a potent combo with Felipe Rivero at the back end of the bullpen.
Because of his already high salary, there’s not a ton of surplus value for Colome, but he’d still require something like SS Kevin Newman and LHP Taylor Hearn as the return. Those are the relatively close to the Majors pieces that the Rays covet. Newman could percolate in the minors in 2018 and then be Adeiny Hechavarria’s direct replacement in 2019 after his team control expires.
This one gets a little tricky. Aside from my quest to upgrade the backup catcher position, most of the suggestions to improve the Pirates have been focused on pitchers. I do see that there’s a need to boost the offense, but it’s hard for me to see where the Pirates would be willing to do so realistically.
Corey Dickerson could represent an offensive upgrade, but he would require the displacement of either Starling Marte or Gregory Polanco to do so. At $6.4M, Dickerson is getting up there in cost in his second year of arbitration. Would the Rays go for a straight up Dickerson for Polanco swap ? With what looks like the continued absence of Jung-ho Kang, the Pirates could sure use Dickerson’s 27 homers from last year. In 3 of the past 4 seasons, Dickerson has hit 24, 24, and 27 homers. I’d take that relatively proven baseline of power over the potential power of Polanco at this point, who has only crested 20 homers once in his career.
The net savings between Dickerson’s potential $6.4M salary and Polanco’s $4.1M salary in 2017 is a small $2.3M, but the Rays would be gaining a younger asset (Polanco’s 26, Dickerson’s 28) that has more team control out to 2023 with his options. Those are the types of gambles the Rays frequently take.
While their batting averages and on-base percentages are relatively similar, you get more power with Dickerson at the expense of less defense. By putting him in PNC Park’s RF, though, you minimize that issue. Although he primarily batted 1st or 2nd, for some reason, for the Rays last year, I’d put Dickerson in the 5-hole. You could move Marte to either leadoff or 2nd, where his lack of power won’t be an issue and he can utilize his speed more effectively. The McCutchen-Bell-Dickerson 3-4-5 would be intriguing to me.