PORT CHARLOTTE — The players association looks at the Rays and sees a horror show. The Rays are cheap. They’re cheating their fans. They’re skimming revenue sharing money.
The commissioner’s office looks at the Rays and sees the best of baseball. The Rays are efficient. They’re playing above their means. They have the sharpest minds in the game.
Who’s right? Who cares. Each side is pushing a selfish agenda, and neither is addressing the more important issue of competitive balance in baseball.
For the second spring in a row, the Rays have been unfairly thrown in the middle of baseball’s economic wars. Last year, it was the players association filing a still-unresolved grievance against the Rays over revenue sharing money. And this week commissioner Rob Manfred tried to use Tampa Bay’s recent success as justification that baseball doesn’t have a problem with payroll disparity.
“I reject the notion that payroll is a good measure of how much a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be,’’ Manfred told reporters in West Palm Beach on Sunday.
That would be laughable if it wasn’t so insulting.
First of all, we’ve heard for years how the Rays need a new stadium to increase revenues so they could be more competitive against the American League East conglomerates. So is the commissioner now saying that crowd size at Tropicana Field isn’t a factor in the team’s success or failure?
Manfred pointed out that the Rays won 90 games last year and the Athletics won 97 with two of the smallest payrolls in baseball, and tried to make the case that there is hardly any correlation between spending and winning. Again, that’s nonsense.
Rays owner Stu Sternberg did not directly dispute the commissioner’s words, but politely suggested Manfred might have overstated that claim.
“Success, unfortunately, is our worst enemy,’’ Sternberg said. “And it doesn’t really help us to address the competitive imbalances because people point to us and say, “Oh, look you had one of the lowest payrolls and still won 90 games in the hardest division in baseball.’ It’s tough for me to dispute.’’
Every year there is at least one team that sneaks into the postseason with a tiny payroll, and every year there are several big-spending teams that finish below .500. But those are aberrations.
A big payroll does not guarantee success, but it gives you a better chance. It always has, and always will.
If you split it up by divisions, over the last 10 seasons, the team with the largest payroll finished first more than twice as many times as the team with the second-largest payroll. And when you compare them to the teams with the smallest payroll, they won the division five times as much.
Those are not incidental numbers. Nor are they coincidental.
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“There is definitely a correlation,’’ Sternberg said. “But it doesn’t mean you can’t find your way through with a lower payroll to have success and, most importantly, belief from the fans and optimism.
“If you sat here a year ago, there wasn’t a human being who believed we could win 90 games. So things happen. It’s up to organizations to do the best with what they have. And it’s up to baseball to make sure the competitive balance is addressed even more so going forward.’’
And this is where the union and the commissioner need to stop trying to top each other with the best sound bites, and instead look for ways to make this work for owners, players and fans.
The players association has floated the idea of punishing low-spending teams by adversely affecting their draft position. That is ludicrous. The draft is one of the few ways a small-market team can be competitive. If anything, baseball should go the opposite direction and offer more help in the draft.
The commissioner’s office also needs to be realistic about payroll disparity. Low-revenue teams are not hopeless, but they are limited. And big-market teams clearly have an advantage.
Or maybe it’s just a fluke that the Dodgers and Yankees are tied for the most postseason appearances, with seven apiece, in the past decade?
“There should always be a greater reach toward competitive balance,’’ Sternberg said, “however you want to define it, however you get there.’’
Contact John Romano at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes