Tampa Bay, The New Beasts From The East

Everyone is abuzz about last night’s crazy ending, and with good reason as the Braves and Red Sox showcased the two worst collapses in the history of the game, IN ONE NIGHT.

As I sat and watched Papelbon take his time getting the first two outs I could tell something wasn’t right. As he handed the winning run, the cherry on the monumental collapse that was the 2011 Red Sox season, I couldn’t help but let my jaw drop.

Papelbon, who had already expressed a strong desire to gauge his worth on the open market, to drive the price of the closer up, to leave Boston, had outstayed his welcome by one game. But the Red Sox still had hope.

Even with their nine game fall, the widest margin ever in September, a brand new record replacing the short-standing 8.5 games previously held by the… 2011 Braves… the Red Sox faithful and the team with the second highest payroll in all of Major League Baseball still had hope.

Theo Epstein and the rest of the Red Sox front office had spent John Henry’s money on a team with one purpose. Not to rebuild. Not to win the division. Not to win the league championship. To win the World Series.

Epstein managed to lure Carl Crawford and Adrain Gonzalez, the two biggest names in the 2011 free agent class to the Red Sox. Fans were all but guaranteed their third championship since 2004.

As I realized I couldn’t view the Yankees-Rays’ game on television I rushed to the nearest radio, which happened to be in my car. I frantically  searched for a frequency with sports talk that wasn’t about the Red Sox, but instead about the Rays. After going through every sports station imaginable I finally heard “Evan Longoria hit a home run to tie the game.” Not since 2004, when the Red Sox came back from a three game deficit, had I been so shocked.

The Rays. The Rays with the second worst attendance in Major League Baseball. The Rays with the third smallest payroll in the league. The Rays would play spoiler to the Red Sox. The Rays would claim the American League Wild Card.

The Rays have proved just what Jonah Keri preached in “The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Team from Worst to First“, that working 2% harder than everyone else will ultimately get you where you want to be. That and working with what is possibly the most underrated front office in all of Major League Baseball, along with a manger who truly understands the inner workings of his young team.

This will be the third time in four years the Rays have made it to the playoffs. Each time with a payroll significantly less than that of the Red Sox or Yankees.

The question that begs to be asked: How does a team with such a small payroll, a lack of team history, and such low attendance numbers manage to stay in the hunt?

The answer was alluded to above, the brain trust that is Andrew Friedman, Stu Sternberg, and Matthew Silverman (ie the Rays’ front office). In the time since Sternberg purchased the team from his predecessor Vince Naimoli the Rays have done a complete 180-degree turn and made themselves into a truly competitive team.

The Rays have taken to drafting well. With a commitment to cutting payroll, the best way for the Rays to ensure a positive future is through what Keri defines as “baseball arbitrage”, or trading something for a positive value. Trades for future value ensure that the Rays have just that, a future. Instead of relying on veteran presences, the Rays have come to rely on guys like Evan Longoria who has, according to Fangraphs.com, the most team friendly contract in all of Major League Baseball. And when Longoria was hurt Matt Joyce and others learned to step-up. With the most picks in the first round of the draft ever, the Rays set themselves up for years to come in 2011.

Yes 2011 Red Sox, injuries are a reason good teams don’t make the playoffs, but they are not the only reason. A Team with seemingly less talent (though this may only be because their talent is not showcased in the media in the same way as larger markets), whose star player was injured for 29 games this season, managed to beat the Red Sox to the Wild Card. Longoria still boasted a 6.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement Player) despite his injury (for quick reference, anything above a 5 WAR is considered a All-Star caliber). Adrian Gonzalez, (who allegedly stated in an interview that “any team that doesn’t make the playoffs and is supposed to, it’s because of injuries” ) perhaps you should take a look at your new rivals down south and take note. Injuries are not the only reason good teams miss the playoffs. Good teams miss the playoffs because even good teams can play terribly in September.

And that is the beauty, and heartbreak, of Major League Baseball.

This year’s American League Wild Card race does present interesting questions, however. Namely about the restructuring of the leagues to create more equal divisions. The Red Sox or Rays (injuries or not) would have likely won either of the other divisions, instead of being forced to compete on the last day of the season. No amount of revenue sharing can ever equal out the competitive imbalance in payrolls.

And potentially punishing a team like the Rays, who can compete against teams like the Yankees and Red Sox with a fraction of the payroll simply for geographic reasons is uncalled for. Geographic rivalries can be fun, but in all honesty it is 2011 and virtual tourism (see watching a game on TV or on MLB.tv) is almost as popular as visiting a stadium itself. There is not need for long bus trips from city to city (unless you are the Durham Bulls), teams have charter jets.

Perhaps it is time to restructure the leagues. To create a competitive balance.

But, then again, if that were the case we wouldn’t have had the most memorable day 162 any of us will ever see.

1 Comment

Hi Coral!
We met at the Baseball Winter Meetings the other day, and I wanted to check out some of the things you have done!

I love your work! And would love to talk more about baseball with you! I did not get to say goodbye, although I loved the conversations we had!

Reach me at rob.dw.bland@gmail.com

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