ST. PETERSBURG — After picking the Rays/Hines group to control the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site and the building of a new stadium, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said the city and team are now engaged, with plans to soon be married.
Rays president Brian Auld was not quite as forward, saying instead they are “fully engaged” with the city, with the hope of completing negotiations on myriad points, but cautioned that Monday’s announcement was merely “the very beginning” of the end game.
If they can consummate the relationship, and more importantly the complex multi-party agreement — which will also require a significant contribution from Pinellas County — for what is expected to be a roughly $1.2 billion stadium project, the team on the field should be much better for it.
Speaking in generalities given stadium financing details have not been worked out, top Rays officials said the project should lead to bigger crowds at games, increased sponsorships, improved facilities and, most relevant, larger player payrolls.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it left the franchise in a better position that we’re in today,” Auld said after a Tropicana Field media conference. “Look, it’s been a wild offseason. We made our biggest free-agent signing ever (Zach Eflin) and I think it was one-tenth the size of a handful of other (teams’) deals.
“The economics of baseball are immensely challenging. This isn’t going to solve all of that. Does it help us to fight with 1-1/2 hands instead of one tied behind our back? We think so.”
The Rays have had considerable success on the field, including making the playoffs the last four seasons and eight since 2008, despite having among the lowest payrolls.
Last season’s $78.2 million opening day payroll (based on player salaries and not counting prorated signing bonuses, incentives or buyouts) was the largest in their 25 seasons. The Yankees and Red Sox, two of the teams they compete with in the American League East, have been over $200 million in several seasons.
And even when the Rays spend big, it is relative.
A recent spree includes deals for shortstop Wander Franco ($182 million guaranteed over 11 years), outfielder Manuel Margot ($19 million, two) and pitcher Tyler Glasnow ($30.35 million, two). In December they signed pitcher Eflin to the largest free-agent contract in team history ($40 million over three years).
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And over the past week, they did extensions for pitchers Jeffrey Springs ($31 million, four years) and Pete Fairbanks ($12 million, three), are expected to complete another Tuesday with infielder Yandy Diaz ($24 million over three, with a $12 million option) and could strike a deal with reliever Jason Adam.
The Yankees, meanwhile, re-signed Aaron Judge for $360 million over nine years. Over the last two offseasons, the Mets signed two pitchers for annual salaries of more than $40 million (Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander) and four other teams signed players to deals worth at least $280 million: the Rangers, Corey Seager; Phillies, Trea Turner; Padres, Xander Bogaerts; and Twins, Carlos Correa.
“We aren’t going to build a new ballpark unless we think it dramatically improves our fortunes,” said Matt Silverman, the other team president. “When I say fortunes, it’s about revenue generation that can be poured back into the organization. And the place where our fans see it most is in player payroll.
“The more tickets sold, the more sponsors who come on board, the stronger our revenues are the deeper investments we can make in more player payroll.”
The new stadium, which the Rays and architects are billing as state of the art — with a fixed roof, artificial turf and a capacity of about 30,000 — should be an additional benefit in attracting and keeping players.
“Having a new ballpark with a new major-league clubhouse and first-class amenities in a thriving neighborhood will be a selling point for the team,” Silverman said. “We’ve never had that as a selling point. We do the best we can with our facility. It’s a great place for major-league players, but it isn’t the best of the best. We’ll be able to offer that with this new ballpark and with the associated development.”
The stadium is part of the 86-acre redevelopment project for what is called the Historic Gas Plant District. The plan is based on the surrounding restaurants, bars, retail outlets, hotels and other entertainment venues drawing more fans to the games, as well as exposing potential new sponsors and business partners to the team.
Bigger crowds also would improve what at times can be a listless and uninspiring atmosphere during games with small crowds — 22 last season under 10,000. The Rays have often been at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance, despite their onfield success, so there are significant questions about the logic of building at the same site.
Welch pointed to the massive amount of development that has been done or is in progress already in the downtown area, including high-end condos and apartments, and how the new project will add to that. Also, how transportation from the beaches and Gateway areas has improved with new express bus service, and the new Howard Frankland Bridge will make the trip to and from Tampa easier, noting that in some markets a 45-minute drive is “kinda normal.”
Rays officials themselves have said at times that ideally they would prefer a new stadium be located in Tampa, and Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred in July said the same, though he added that location wasn’t the only factor. (In December, after the Rays made the Trop redevelopment bid, Manfred commended them for their effort “to explore all of the available options in the Tampa Bay region.”)
Asked Monday if MLB has to weigh in on the viability, Welch said “they have,” that he has spoken to Manfred and team officials. “They want to be next to a vibrant downtown so it’s not just a three- or four-hour venture to the ballpark but it can be an all-day experience,” he said. “And that’s what you’ll have.”
Much has to be negotiated, and without a lot of time as the new ballpark would open in 2028. (Plus the Rays said until a deal is final they would continue dialogue with Tampa officials.)
But what looks to be the best opportunity in their 16-year quest for a new stadium is in front of them.
“As has always been our goal, just solidifying the future of the team in Tampa Bay we think is going to do wonders for our fan base, for our players, for the confidence around the organization,” Auld said. “We think it’s going to help with ticket sales. We think it’s going to help with sponsorships.
“So we’re eager to get that shovel in the ground and have that certainty for the first time.”
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