PORT CHARLOTTE – Fans, critics and observers from around the game and even within their own clubhouse have long complained that the Rays don't spend enough on player payroll.
Now the players union has agreed – and taken action, filing a grievance against the Rays and three other teams, claiming they have failed to comply with rules governing spending of revenue sharing money.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg summarily dismissed the official complaint, saying he was "genuinely surprised" by it and that the Rays were "beyond what compliance is" within the rules. Teams are required to use the revenue-sharing funds "in an effort to improve its performance on the field,'' though not limited to big-league payroll.
"We're very judicious in how we spend our money, but it's spent in a lot of forms, and payroll is one of them,'' he said. "I think the payroll we have out here, and the players we have out here, we're doing our jobs.''
Then Sternberg similarly waved off the complainers.
He pointed out that the Rays will have a higher payroll this opening day – about $73 million as of now even after their recent seemingly cost-saving deals – than last, and among the highest of his 13-year stewardship, despite another season of MLB worst attendance.
"As far as spending goes on-field, the numbers will stand for themselves,'' he said.
The grievance, which also includes the A's, Marlins and Pirates, covers 2017 and this season, as the Tampa Bay Times first reported. It could lead to a hearing before baseball's independent arbitrator, with the union seeking damages to make unsigned players "whole,'' a seemingly difficult value to ascertain.
Major League Baseball said, in a statement, "We have received the grievance and believe it has no merit."
Officials from other teams were, like Sternberg, also dismissive, Pirates president Frank Coonelly calling the grievance "patently baseless,'' "meritless" and "frivolous." Marlins CEO Derek Jeter said they will "continue to do everything we can to build a foundation for sustained success.'' The A's said they concurred with MLB's opinion that it was without merit.
The Rays are believed to be the second largest revenue-sharing recipients (behind the Marlins), getting around $45 million a year from the other teams.
Sternberg claims that money, like the reported $50-million in national TV and other revenues they get, and the reported $35-million this year in local TV money in what may be the last before a more lucrative deal kicks in, and the one-time $50-million payment from MLB's sale of its advanced media division, all goes into operating the team.
So determining if the Rays were not in compliance with the revenue-sharing rules would be tricky, a task for some All-Star caliber forensic accountants.
That's because of the broad definition of what those revenue-sharing funds can be used for, such as investment in scouting, minor league staff and operations, development of international players, technological innovations and facilities (They can't be used to service debt related franchise acquisition or other non-performance items.)
Rays player rep Chris Archer was aware of the grievance, but not the specifics of the complaint against his bosses.
"I think the biggest concern is the discrepancy between the teams at the top, how much they're spending, the teams in the middle, and there's six teams or so that are spending under $90- or so million, though that could change,'' he said.
"But there's such a huge discrepancy. … From the outside looking in, it looks like some teams are using it on their major-league club and some teams aren't.''
Though Archer talks often with top Rays officials, he said they never discuss details such as allocation of revenues.
"It's easy to know how much payroll we have, but where that comes from, I just throw the ball,'' he said. "I have no clue what it costs to run the Dominican academy. I know just from my perspective, not a whole lot has changed with the spring training facility, not a whole lot has changed at the Trop, and our payroll has not increased significantly.
"But that's just one side of it, I don't know where else they are also investing, and they may be.''
The union complaint could have merit, based on a follow-up to less-formal inquiry it made in January about the Marlins and Pirates. Or maybe, as Coonelly said, the union took this action to deflect blame for the unprecedentedly slow free agent market. Others suggest union leadership is to blame based on the terms it agreed to in the last CBA, so under that theory it could be that the grievance was more for the union to show to its membership that it was fighting back at a time when relations between the union and MLB are rancorous.
Either way, the Rays are now in the middle of the battle.
"I don't know what happens from here," Sternberg said. "It's uncharted territory for me, and I would imagine the other teams as well. But if it wants to be explored, or needs to be explored, I don't get it. How's that?"
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays