Despite miraculous playoff trip, Rays face uncertain future
The Rays overcame a nine-game deficit in September and won the wild card
Rays will have a hard time increasing payroll and may have to trade some stars
Starting pitching remains Tampa Bay's biggest strength for next season
The history-making dramatics that landed the Rays in the postseason on the final day of the season will be an unforgettable part of the franchise's past but the euphoria they engendered in Tampa has already started to fade.
In fact, owner Stuart Sternberg is doom-and-gloom on the future of the Rays. He's saying that Major League Baseball could "vaporize'' the team, is disappointed there are no plans for a new stadium and said that the team's declining attendance --the Rays drew 1.5 million fans, second-lowest in the majors this year -- will make it difficult for them to increase payroll and improve the team in 2012.
"The [players] deserve better,'' Sternberg told reporters after the Rays lost Game 4 of their Division Series to the Texas Rangers in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Sternberg made his comments a few minutes after the Rays were eliminated by the Rangers in Game 4 of the Division Series at home, saying the Rays don't have the $12 million that would be necessary to get the power hitter they need.
"When I came here, I was confident we could put a winning team on the field, and that would do it,'' Sternberg said. "We won and we won and we won -- and it didn't do it. Whatever it is, there are 29 other teams passing us like we are in reverse, except on the field. At some point, that has to change.''
Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, says the Rays' financial predicament is nothing new and that he and manager Joe Maddon will find a way to improve a team that had made the playoffs as the American League's wild card in 2011 after finishing with an improbable 91 wins. No win was ore improbable than the last, in which Tampa Bay rallied from a 7-0 eighth-inning deficit against the Yankees, tying the game on a two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the ninth and winning it on a walk-off home run three innings later to complete an amazing comeback from nine-games behind the Red Sox in the wild card race in early September to a playoff berth in October.
Friedman said that Rays know how to live with their identity as a low-budget team that competes in the AL East with the big-money New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
"It's part of our DNA, a part of who we are,'' Friedman said at a press conference Thursday at Tropicana Field. "We relish the us-against-the-world mentality. We don't get caught up in external factors.''
Friedman also said that Sternberg's mind could be changed. Before the 2010 season, Sternberg wasn't allowing the team to get a $7 million closer, but eventually, the Rays signed Rafael Soriano at that price.
"He likes to say markets change,'' Friedman said. "Things change. I know he's frustrated, but we try to insulate ourselves from those things. It doesn't do us any good to get caught up in that. We don't worry about the external factors.''
The Rays' payroll dropped from $72 million in 2010 to $42 million in 2011. Friedman wasn't specific on the payroll for next season, but he said, as usual, the team "operates without a set number.''
Friedman doesn't have a contract either, and while he's been mentioned as a candidate to be the general manager of either his hometown Houston Astros or the Chicago Cubs, he said his focus is on making the Rays a better team. He said he would come up with different proposals that can be presented to Sternberg.
"There will be a lot of different ways we can go,'' Friedman said. "We relish that. It's something that allows us to be creative. It allows us to be nimble.
"But we're going to have talent next year. We've proven time and time again it's not about the payroll, it is about talent.''
Friedman's goal is to "maintain the caliber of defense and add offense.''
There doesn't appear to be a lot of wiggle room in the budget. The Rays go into the offseason with $38 million committed to their core players. They're in the market for a first baseman, DH, a couple of bullpen arms and possibly a catcher.
Johnny Damon, 38, who made $5.25 million in 2011 and lives in nearby Orlando, and first baseman Casey Kotchman are the Rays' two major players eligible for free agency this offseason. Damon hit .261 with 16 home runs last season. Kotchman hit .306 with 10 home runs, and the Rays will have to decide they want Kotchman and his strong defense even though he has limited power.
Friedman likes the idea of bringing back Damon and Kotchman. Damon said at the end the season that he would like to come back, given the team's competitive nature and how close it is to his home.
"Obviously, Johnny and Casey were huge parts of our success,'' Friedman said.
The team holds a $3.2 million option on catcher Kelly Shoppach, and if he goes, the roster candidates are John Jaso, Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chernos.
The Rays' strength is their defense and starting pitching depth. They could trade pitcher James Shields, who turns 30 in December and is due to make $7 million in 2012, some of their young pitching or centerfielder B.J. Upton to help a lineup that was, according to Maddon, "in and out all season'' when it came to run production.
Upton hit .243 with 23 home runs, 81 RBI and 36 stolen bases.
For now, the rotation has Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. Hellickson is a candidate to win the American League's Rookie of the Year Award in November.
Shields was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA with an MLB-best 11 complete games and an AL-high four shutouts. Hellickson had a 2.95 ERA.
Lefty Matt Moore, who made his second big-league start in the Division Series vs. the Rangers, made a late-season impression. The Rays also have a couple of top-notch prospects, Alex Cobb and Alex Torres, on the verge of being ready for the big-league club.
Torres, a 23-year-old lefty,had 156 strikeouts and 83 walks in 146 1/3 innings at Triple-A Durham (N.C.) while compiling a 3.08 ERA. Cobb, a 24-year-old righty, had a 1.87 ERA with 70 strikeouts and 16 walks in 67 1/3 innings for the Bulls.
Friedman is mum on trade possibilities, although at least two teams, the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals, will be looking for a run-producing centerfielder. The Nationals talked with Rays about acquiring Upton before the July 31 trading deadline.
Friedman isn't keen on the idea of trading starting pitching, but it could happen.
"Starting pitching depth for us is everything,'' Friedman said. "Success in this division is tied directly to our starters. We need to have them and we need to have guys that are extremely talented and can get swings and misses in our division. That is extremely difficult.
"We can't ever lose that. If we ever have to go into the market for that, we are in a lot of trouble.''
Last offseason, the Rays, who have made the postseason three of the last four seasons, appeared to be in a lot of trouble. Their entire bullpen departed, and Friedman spent most of his offseason trying to find six relief pitchers. The bullpen was expected to be Rays' problem this season. Instead, Kyle Farnsworth (25 saves) emerged as a reliable closer and Joel Peralta (2.93 ERA), both of whom will be back, helped stabilize the middle relief corps.
That takes the pressure to rebuild the bullpen off Friedman, who is thankful for the break. "Of everything that happened last offseason, that was by far the thing that kept us up the most, consumed our thoughts the most,'' Friedman said. "It's going to be nice to approach in a little different way this season."
When the season began, the Rays' inexperienced bullpen was expected to be their primary concern but a 1-8 start and the retirement of Manny Ramirez seemed to end their season before it really began. Instead, as Maddon said, "The demise of the Rays was greatly exaggerated."
Friedman hopes that the organization can say the same next season. If nothing else, the GM has one thing to look forward to this winter: "I'm definitely going to get more sleep.''
Mel Antonen, a baseball writer in Washington, D.C., can be heard on the Sirius-XM Radio network.