The Tampa Bay Rays meet every traditional criterion for a team that’s easy to root for. They’re new, without a long legacy of dominance that would make a team dislikable. They did not exist prior to 1998, and they spent roughly the first half of their existence as losers. Here there’s a neat line of demarcation: From 1998 to 2007, they were the Devil Rays—a much better name—and won 40 percent of their games while never making the playoffs. Since 2008, as the Rays, they’ve played in the playoffs six times and won two American League pennants, including 2020’s, but they still haven’t won baseball’s ultimate grail, a World Series. They’re a little brand with a little budget, sharing the AL East with two of the most iconic (and hateable) brands in sports. As far as baseball operations, they’re exceptionally run and can regularly win with payrolls near the bottom of Major League Baseball.
They’ve done it by being an evaluation and development juggernaut, with an eye for creative ways to deploy talent. Of Tampa’s nine current starting position players, six were trade pickups, two were draftees, and one was an amateur free agent signed as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic. Their bench players are all trade pickups, and their pitching staff is mostly a mix of players they drafted, players they swindled away from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and low-cost free agents like Michael Wacha. With about $5 million, they built the most valuable bullpen in MLB this year, going by FanGraphs’ wins above replacement. They have long been innovators, whether with defensive shifts in the aughts or the concept of bullpen games in the 2010s. If you like smart, well-oiled machines, you will naturally like the Rays.
A different way to view the Rays is as one of the starkest representations of some of the worst things about modern baseball, and to hope that they lose in this 2021 postseason so that the people in charge of the team don’t get the satisfaction of winning a World Series. The Rays really, really don’t like paying players—which, sure, is their prerogative and a goal most clubs share. But by being so good, the Rays have laid out a roadmap for other cheap teams to follow, one that is bad for both players and fans. Elsewhere, they’ve taken pro sports’ stadium-financing extortion schemes against local governments to heights rarely reached. This might not be enough in your view to jar them loose from the role of lovable punch-upper, and if it’s not that deep to you, then by all means, root for the Rays. It’s not like the team they’re playing this week, the Boston Red Sox, is a shining example of putting the best product on the field no matter what. But the Rays aren’t, for me, a scrappy underdog to root for. They’re a scrappy underdog to root against.
It’s a philosophical thing, for starters: I prefer athletes to get paid a lot. They’re much more interesting to me than the nine-figure millionaires and billionaires who own the teams, and the valuation of labor in pro sports is important because of how visible the leagues are. A pitcher getting $6 million in arbitration instead of $4 million is not a proxy for the rest of us taking more money and better working conditions from our bosses, but for a lot of sports fans, especially young ones, player-versus-team battles are a rare occasion to examine the relationship between labor and management. (For instance, I am pretty sure I learned what a “lockout” was during the canceled 2004 NHL season, when I was 10.) Most of us have more in common with the players, so I support them taking as much of the pie as possible.
The Rays are a menace to that cause. With occasional, slight exceptions, they have maintained a payroll in the bottom five of MLB every year this century. Their typical Opening Day roster costs between $60 million and $80 million, around a third of what the biggest-spending teams now pay for talent. When players get truly expensive, the Rays shed them some way or another. No one on the current roster makes more than center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s $11.7 million, and the only reason Kiermaier is still on the team, in his eighth big league season, is that the Rays got an early extension done with him in 2017. Almost the entire roster is making a six-figure pre-arbitration salary, in arbitration but currently for a few million dollars per year, or was a discount-bin free agency pickup. After last season, they traded 28-year-old recent Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell with three years and $39 million left on his deal. The Rays got a serious prospect haul back for him, which gets to the point that they’re definitely not dumb. They’re just stingy, and nobody has to like a world where a team doesn’t think $13 million a year is a worthwhile rate to keep around a prime-aged star player. (The Rays’ “bullpen game” strategy has also drawn scrutiny around the sport, most notably from star pitcher Zack Greinke, for being not just strategically savvy but also a tool for teams to avoid paying top-dollar for arms.)
Wall Street guy Stuart Sternberg is the Rays’ owner. He took a plurality share of the team in 2004 and now owns 85 percent of it, according to a lawsuit some minority investors filed against him this year. When Sternberg talks about the Rays’ spending, he more or less cries poor and harps on the disadvantages the Rays face relative to their peers. “I don’t mind a fight with a hand tied behind my back. I don’t mind a fight going in if I don’t have enough sleep,” he metaphorized in 2015. “But it’s tough when the other guy is driving a tank and I’m sitting there on a three-speed bicycle. It really is hard. And that’s where we are. And there’s just more tanks coming.”
Could Sternberg invest more? MLB teams never open up their books—I wonder why—but Sternberg owns a team whose value has risen to something like $1 billion, after he bought in at a valuation well less than half that. (Forbes reports his group bought in for $200 million, and that initial stake was 48 percent. Quick-and-dirty math says the Rays were worth around $400 million at the time, before Sternberg upped his stake.) But I don’t have to speculate, because Sternberg told a bunch of reporters in 2019 that he had $50 million more to spend and wouldn’t. You don’t have to doubt that the Rays make less money than most MLB teams to figure that Sternberg could bolster his roster with more established talent if he wanted. On the one hand, the Rays don’t need such a boost, because they’re a defending pennant winner that just won 100 games. On the other hand, they could use it. Maybe a few more bucks would have pushed the Rays over the hump in either the 2008 or ’20 World Series. We’ll never know. After last year’s loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sternberg criticized his cheap roster, saying it was “hard to find” many Rays who’d have been good enough to start for Tampa Bay’s playoff opponents. That was ridiculous, but if he felt that way, maybe he could’ve paid for even more good players.
Attempting to extract every bit of juice out of a roster for as little as possible is not a goal unique to the Rays. They’re just more audacious about it than most, and better at it. Trying to get taxpayers to build new stadiums for owners is also not a uniquely Rays thing, but that’s another area where they’re just a little bolder than most. It’s standard for club owners to try to pressure local governments into helping them pay for one new stadium. Since 2019, the Rays have been pushing a plan to get two—one in Montreal and one in Tampa or St. Petersburg. There’s an idea that tourism taxes would fund the Florida stadium, though the idea that those dollars alone would shelter local taxpayers from being on the hook was iffy even before the pandemic. Quebec, for its part, might be open to paying for at least part of a part-time Rays field.
Sternberg’s idea is that the Rays could play early-season games in Florida, in a new stadium that doesn’t require a climate-controlled dome and is thus less expensive than one with a roof, then finish the year in Montreal, which has lacked a team since the Expos went to Washington in 2005. Montreal can get quite cold at the end of the baseball season, though it’s not clear if a new stadium there would be climate-controlled or not. The Rays play in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, an ugly ballpark in an inconvenient location. The team’s attendance is always terrible despite the team being great.
The split-season idea is logistically awkward and would be a pain for most everyone who works for the Rays. It’s also a slap in the face to the franchise’s fans in Florida. Sternberg wanted to hang a sign in Tropicana Field this postseason advertising the Rays’ dual-city plan, but he ditched that plan and apologized when people pointed out that it would be like advertising to your wife that you’re stoked to spend three nights a week in another woman’s bed.
Whether the Montreal idea comes to fruition later this decade or not is unclear. The Rays have a lease in St. Petersburg until 2027, and the city isn’t letting them out of it. What’s more clear is that for the immediate term, the baseball team will continue to run as it always has. That’ll mean a lot of good seasons, probably, though the Rays could backslide as they did when they won no more than 80 games any year between 2014 and ’17. As long as the Rays are great, they’ll be a shining example of what major league owners think makes baseball great. Don’t take that from me, but from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, the 30 owners’ star employee. Last year, Manfred called the Rays “an example of what’s great about our game” and made clear what he meant. “What I mean by that is that there’s lots of different ways to put together a roster that can be really, really effective. And I think the fact that the Rays have done it with more limited resources than almost any other club is a phenomenal accomplishment.”
Manfred and bosses would love it if the league had 30 teams doing some version of what the Rays have done. Instead, the league has one Rays and several wanna-be Rays that routinely decline to invest in high-level talent, hoping they can string together a run of play as good as what the Tampa Bay has assembled on relative pennies. The other teams that try to do it are much worse at it than the Rays, but the team nonetheless gives the owners of those other clubs a roadmap to claim they can build a winner without trying to build one by investing in the major league roster. As a fan of one of those sad-sack franchises (the Pirates, I am sad to admit), I don’t like that my team can look at the Rays and plausibly think to itself, “Hey, we can be like that.” Much more likely is that they cannot, at least not for more than a brief window before reverting back to misery.
What the Rays have pulled off is a feat. It works great for Sternberg, and it works great for their fans, at least until he moves the team to Montreal for half the season or more. But it’s not good for players, and it’s not good for fans of the sport who want a league where every team maxes itself out to put a good product on the field. The problem is not that the Rays are a bad example for teams to follow. It’s that, in the league’s eyes, they’re a perfect example for teams to follow.