ST. PETERSBURG — Say what you want about Tropicana Field, but it's mid September and the upstart Tampa Bay Rays lead the American League East.
Not the hallowed Yankees, with their $209-million payroll.
Not the $133-million Red Sox, with their annoying "nation.''
The $44-million Tampa Bay Rays, whose owners say they can't win consistently without a new stadium and the revenue it provides.
While baseball history shows higher payrolls mean more victories, a St. Petersburg Times analysis of the past decade shows it's no guarantee. Unpredictable player performances, injuries and other intangibles can quickly undermine the mantra that new stadiums and higher payrolls always bring more victories.
The analysis shows teams that win 81 games in a season usually remain in playoff contention into September. Eight-five wins almost guarantee it.
Teams paying average salaries reached that 81-game threshold six years out 10. They won 85 games four years out of 10. Lower-salary teams hit those targets only half as frequently.
The Rays say they will contend for the playoffs "more often than not'' if they can raise their payroll near baseball's midpoint, about $80-million, nearly twice this year's payroll.
"We are a midmarket team that right now generates revenues near the bottom of Major League Baseball," says Rays president Matt Silverman. "If we can generate revenues commensurate with our market size, we'll be able to put a competitive product on the field almost every year.''
The Rays won't speculate on how much cash a spiffy new ballpark would muster, but a public study shows that the Milwaukee Brewers earned an additional $40-million a year after they moved into Miller Park in 2001.
That's about what the Rays lack to reach their middle-of-the-pack payroll goal.
But would it really bring significantly more wins?
Salary or savvy?
The rationale that modern stadiums lead to better teams is one of baseball's most enduring claims. Just ask commissioner Bud Selig, who last summer proclaimed that the Rays are desperately in need of a new facility.
The Times examined nine teams that opened ballparks since 1999, comparing the last five years in the old stadium to the first four or five in the new.
Attendance, ticket prices and salaries all jumped. But wins waffled all over the place.
San Francisco, San Diego, Philadelphia and Seattle won 90 games a year on average in their new digs, a 10-win jump.
Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cincinnati, Houston and Milwaukee lost more games.
On average, the new stadiums produced 2.2 extra wins a year.
"The most overrated argument in baseball is that you need a big payroll to win consistently,'' says David Berri, sports economist at Southern Utah University. "You need good decisions to win consistently. You need luck to win consistently.''
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles have proved that big bucks don't guarantee victory. Low-budget teams often come out of nowhere. Witness last year's Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians, who made the playoffs with baseball's fifth-, sixth- and eighth-lowest payrolls.
That's because individual performance varies widely from year to year, Berri says. Last year's all-star struggles and injures a knee. Cheap journeymen switch teams and suddenly belt 35 home runs.
Berri studied payrolls and wins from 1988 through 2006 and concluded that a $30-million salary rise in 2006 was worth five extra wins, with the margin of error running from zero wins to 10.
The Rays acknowledge that dollars are just one part of the winning equation.
"It's about the development of the talent. It's frankly, in some cases, making shrewd trades,'' says Silverman. "It's being at the right place at the right time and not having injuries when other teams do and having guys you didn't expect to develop, develop.''
But clearly, Silverman said, big-spenders have a leg up.
New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago can shell out $20-million for one free agent fireballer. They can fill holes during August stretch runs, when out-of-contention teams dump high-priced starters.
"We don't have the ability to do that year-in and year-out,'' says Silverman. "Mistakes are magnified when you are a low-budget ballclub. We don't have the ability to spend past them.''
Lowly paid but astutely managed teams such as Oakland and Minnesota frequently make playoff runs, but their success is often cyclical. Four or five good years follow four or five bad.
Other teams eventually pick off their players.
"It creates a tremendous sense of dissatisfaction'' for fans, says Rays vice president Michael Kalt. "We're trying to avoid the boom-bust cycle.''
The Twins had bad years in the 1990s, then made the playoffs four times. Then its brightest stars Johan Santana and Torii Hunter were lured away with $20-million salaries from the New York Mets and Los Angeles Angels, respectively.
Now the Twins are rebuilding around new players.
The key ingredient, according to team president Dave St. Peter?
A new ballpark, due to open in 2010.
Avoiding the drain
Kansas City is in the middle of a $250-million stadium renovation. The Yankees and Mets are building new ballparks. The Florida Marlins and Oakland Athletics are progressing that way, and the Rays hope to soon.
Common sense dictates that new ballparks can't guarantee competitiveness, even with their abundant revenues.
Somebody has to lose.
But a cash infusion might soften a threat the Rays' young franchise has never had to confront: The player drain that even modest success can create.
This year, the Rays collectively pay about $3.4-million to seven starters: catcher Dioner Navarro, outfielder B. J. Upton, shortstop Jason Bartlett and pitchers James Shields, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine.
That's just a little more than the $3-million average for one major leaguer.
As these players mature, their salaries will take quantum leaps, either because they enter free agency or because the Rays sign them to long-term contracts to avoid free agency.
Pitcher Scott Kazmir made $3.785-million this year under an extended contract. That shoots to $6-million next year and $12-million by 2011.
Shields' seven-year contract calls for average raises of more than 50 percent. Third-baseman Evan Longoria, a steal at $500,000, will make $6-million in 2013.
As the Rays win more games, they will find it harder to restock.
Because of their dismal record, the Rays never picked lower than eighth in the first round over the past decade, including three No. 1 picks, one No. 2 and two No. 3s.
These lucrative picks have produced two homegrown starters in Upton and Longoria; two acquired starters in Garza and Bartlett through a trade for former No. 1 pick Delmon Young; one recovering starter, Rocco Baldelli; one shining prospect, David Price; and one slip-through-the-fingers all-star, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.
Winning means the Rays will have to draft lower, where pickings are slimmer.
"The problem is not that a team like the Rays can't rise to the top once every 10 years or once every 15 years,'' says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist. "The problem is ... you get to the playoffs and all of a sudden a player who otherwise has gone unnoticed is nationally recognized.
"The Rays can rise to the top with a $30- or $40- or $50-million payroll in 2008 and 2009,'' Zimbalist says, "But they are going to need to raise their payroll, to hold onto players, to $60- or $80 or $90-million."