The latest MLB tank job takes us to Florida, but not the team you expected. The Marlins made national waves this winter for their teardown, in which their best players were shipped out of town to help new owners Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman pay off the franchise’s massive debts. But not to be outdone in terms of a Sunshine State sell-off, the Rays have spent the last week trying to catch up to Miami in terms of surrendering the season before it even begins.
Over the last four days, the Rays have jettisoned three key pieces of their 2017 roster: designated hitter Corey Dickerson (designated for assignment), starter Jake Odorizzi (traded to Minnesota) and outfielder Steven Souza (sent to Arizona in a three-team swap). That comes on the heels of the December deal in which they dumped face of the franchise Evan Longoria on San Francisco in exchange for three prospects and Denard Span, and a late November trade of former closer Brad Boxberger to the Diamondbacks. The team has also waved goodbye, via free agency, to starter Alex Cobb, first basemen Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda, and relievers Steve Cishek and Tommy Hunter.
To replace all of those outgoing names, the Rays have done … well, nothing. Tampa’s transaction log is a stream of departures with little in the way of additions. The team has signed a single major league free agent, bringing back veteran reliever Sergio Romo (UPDATE: This afternoon, the Rays added a second, reportedly coming to terms with outfielder Carlos Gomez on a one-year pact). Otherwise, the Rays have settled for inking no-name players to minor league contracts. That holds for the trades, too: Span and ex-Angels first baseman C.J. Cron are the only established major leaguers acquired so far, and both are far from what you’d call difference makers.
The result is a Rays team that, a few bright spots aside, will be bad (at best) in 2018. Where Morrison and Longoria and Dickerson and Souza were, Tampa will now turn to the forgettable likes of Cron, Brad Miller, Daniel Robertson, Matt Duffy, and Mallex Smith. With Odorizzi and Cobb gone, Chris Archer is the team’s only trustworthy starter. The bullpen is equally bereft of recognizable or reliable names beyond closer Alex Colome. In the rough-and-tumble AL East, Tampa stands virtually no chance with that sorry assemblage, despite its front office’s risible claims that the Rays will be competitive.
It’s a sad end for a franchise that was, at one point, the model of how to build a winner on a shoestring budget. The Rays could never compete with division rivals New York or Boston (or really anyone else) for top free agents, but Tampa kept motoring along, somehow stringing together winning seasons despite a payroll that would’ve been a rounding error for the Yankees. That all began to come crashing down in 2014, when the Rays slumped from 92 wins and a wild-card berth to 77 wins and fourth place in the AL East; they’ve missed the playoffs the last four years running.
It’s going to be a long time, most likely, until the Rays see the postseason again. But while contention was going to be a tough task in 2018 no matter what, it’s still startling to see how thoroughly they’ve given up on the season. There are tank jobs, and then there’s what Tampa’s front office has done, stripping the team of most of its best parts and leaving nothing but Archer, Colome, Kevin Kiermaier and some fringe major leaguers. What’s galling is how little the Rays have gotten in return for their firesale. Longoria returned two pitchers with big arms but likely bullpen futures and infielder Christian Arroyo, who has potential but was overwhelmed in the majors last year. Odorizzi returned a single player, a low-minors shortstop. Souza was worth two minor leaguers, both fine but neither a star. And Dickerson, an All-Star in 2017, may get the Rays nothing if they’re unable to work out a trade.
All of those players have their flaws—Longoria is aging and expensive, Odorizzi is coming off a mediocre year, Dickerson collapsed in the second half—but it’s still a sorry state of affairs to dump all those players for what amounts to a few lottery tickets. And while the Rays’ front office has made all the requisite noises about competing now and re-tooling for later, it’s hard not to look at this winter’s moves as a franchise punting on a season simply to save money. By selling off Longoria, Dickerson, Souza, and Odorizzi, the team cut roughly $30 million off its already anemic payroll; as it currently stands, Tampa’s financial commitments for 2018 are just around $73 million, a steep drop from last year’s $91 million figure. Amazingly enough, that $73 million mark—nearly $80 million below last year’s league average payroll—isn’t even the lowest in baseball currently. The White Sox ($70 million), Phillies ($67 million), and A’s ($59 million) are all below the Rays; the Pirates and Marlins aren’t far off.
Not every team can be the Dodgers, but it’s disheartening to see how many teams have refused to open their wallets this winter—and how shameless they’ve been about it. In an era of exploding revenues and where each owner was gifted a $50 million payment from MLB as part of its sale of BAMTech, there’s no excuse for the kind of penny-pinching we’re seeing. That’s especially the case for Tampa, which despite a weak offense went 80–82 last year and had the pieces in place, both in the majors and in a strong farm system, to contend for at least a wild-card spot, if ownership had agreed to spend this winter.
Instead, Rays fans will be gifted at-bats from Cron and Span, starts from Nate Eovaldi and Matt Andriese, and relief appearances from Triple A Durham’s most unexciting arms. They’ll watch as Longoria, who should have retired a Ray, instead tries to lift the Giants out of the doldrums. They’ll wait to see where Colome and Archer end up, either sometime this spring or at the trade deadline. They’ll wonder how long they’ll get to hold on to Blake Snell and Brent Honeywell and the rest of the team’s exciting young players, their clocks already ticking. And they’ll get the sales pitch from ownership for a gleaming new stadium in Tampa’s Ybor City—one that will likely cost taxpayers in Hillsborough County hundreds of millions of dollars to house the next group of players sold off when they get too expensive.
Rays fans deserved better. So do the fans of the Marlins, Pirates, A’s, and what feels like a dozen other teams who have openly stopped trying to field a competitive squad, choosing instead to slash payroll or simply not spend. Rob Manfred may not like the word “tanking,” but that’s what this is, plain and simple: a losing product designed to save money, not compete. The players know it and don’t like it; the empty seats at Tropicana Field will be proof enough of how the fans feel. If only the people signing the checks in Tampa felt the same way.