PORT CHARLOTTE — Once again, the conversation is about money. Specifically, the Rays’ reluctance to part with any of it.
Blake Snell is miffed that he got only a nominal raise from the team after his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2018. His relatively mild complaints have drawn attention all around baseball, including the head of the players association who criticized the Rays over the weekend.
This leads to an obvious question:
Are the Rays too cheap?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer?
Yes, thank goodness.
Look, the Rays were incredibly stubborn and shortsighted in this specific case. They have a salary structure for younger players, and they refused to deviate from it despite Snell’s practically unprecedented success at age 25. The official party line is that a larger salary boost for Snell would create a bad precedent for all the contract situations that follow.
That’s hooey. The Rays could simply call it a Cy Young bonus, and offer Snell an extra $100,000 beyond his salary. If any future player wants to claim that prize, tell ’em to win the Cy Young or MVP award.
Now you could rightfully question what’s in it for the Rays. Based on baseball’s arbitration and free agency rules, a team is under no obligation to pay a player much more than the league minimum for the first three seasons of a career. In other words, the Rays would arguably be giving money away if they granted Snell a bigger raise.
But here’s why that’s smart:
As much success as the Rays have had in the past 10 years, they still have an image problem in this market. Casual fans see players coming and going, and assume the Rays are cheap and unworthy of their devotion. That’s a completely erroneous way of looking at it.
Despite having lower revenues than practically every team in baseball, the Rays have been one of the top 10 franchises in terms of wins and losses for more than a decade. That’s a remarkable achievement that has made the Rays the envy of many outside of Tampa Bay.
Yet, around here, they’re written off as cheap. And when it comes to Snell, the Rays just played into that narrative.
A $100,000 bonus works out to less than two-tenths of one percent of the team’s payroll in 2019, and yet it would have bought goodwill from their best player and a lot of fans. It would have been just as effective as any advertising campaign their marketing department could have envisioned.
So, yes, the Rays whiffed on this one.
And that’s a shame because it puts a stain on something that should be celebrated. Tampa Bay stretches a dollar farther than any organization in baseball, and it’s not really close.
Five teams have won more games than the Rays since 2008. Figures vary depend on the source and how salaries are calculated but those five teams have averaged payrolls of $201.6 million (Yankees), $164.3 million (Red Sox), $163.8 million (Dodgers), $136.7 million (Angels) and $114.7 million (Cardinals).
The Rays have averaged $63.9 million.
Tampa Bay is more than 100 games above .500 during that span while low-revenue teams such as San Diego, Miami, Minnesota and even Baltimore are more than 100 games below .500.
It should be a badge of honor that the Rays are competing with MLB’s big boys while always looking for more money in the couch cushions. Tampa Bay has, in some ways, revolutionized baseball by finding hidden value in platoons, run prevention and controllable salary situations. The Rays should find ways to better connect with their fans while promoting these innovations.
Instead, unforced errors such as this shape their image.
Should Snell be angry? Absolutely. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he shouldn’t have to wait until arbitration or free agency to cash in. But that’s the fault of the collective bargaining agreement the players union signed.
Does the players union have a gripe? Not at all. Union chief Tony Clark can whine about Tampa Bay’s policies as soon as mega-flops such as Baltimore’s Chris Davis start refunding the millions of dollars they are being paid.
Did the Rays mess this up? Yes, they did. Sometimes spending a little money can be just as cost-effective in the long run as saving money.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.