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Rays Missing Out on Great Opportunity

flickr.com/Keith Allison

flickr.com/Keith Allison

I wanted to say something about the Tampa Bay Rays to end this week and they offered me a good place to start when they finalized a Scott Kazmir-to-Angels deal today.  This has all the makings of a salary dump, but the Rays don’t see it that way, at least publicly.  Rob Neyer is all over this:

It’s not really fair to describe this deal as a salary dump, because the Rays are getting far more than just $21 million of financial relief. They’ve also picked up at least two solid prospects, and it’s not all that unlikely that one of those prospects will wind up helping the Rays as soon as next season.

He goes on to point out that the deal is completely defensible from the Rays perspective because it doesn’t do much to cut their playoff chances, but it gives them some future pitching help by way of prospects, as well as the salary dump.

Kazmir hasn’t pitched nearly well enough to be considered an irreplaceable part of the Rays rotation.  In that respect, the deal is very easily defensible, if you think you have a pair of prospects that will contribute one day, dropping a guy who cleared a majority of teams in the waiver process and his contract on the large-market Angels is a sound financial strategy.

There’s another financial strategy that could help balance the Rays’ books: making the AL playoffs for a second consecutive year.  Sure, they’ve fallen to 4.5 games behind Boston for the wild card, and they’d have to overcome both Boston and the Texas Rangers to make the playoffs.  I don’t think getting Kazmir out of the rotation really hurts their playoff chances, but I don’t want to let Kazmir distract from the main point of me writing this article:  The Rays should be more active in trying to close the gap in the wild card race, and they are letting a golden opportunity slip by.

I’m not buying the fact that they can’t compete with the Red Sox.  They are every bit as talented as the Red Sox, and have a such a huge offensive advantage over both the Red Sox and the Rangers this year that all they have to do is shuffle some chairs in the rotation and they become the most dangerous of all the wild card suitors.

Yeah, B.J. Upton’s age-24 season has been an offensive disappointment.  Yeah, the Catcher position has been a gaping hole in the lineup.  But when you can be as loaded 2-6 in your lineup as Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist, and Pat Burrell, you are going to score a lot of runs.  And they have, scoring 657 runs through August 28, which puts them fourth in the AL, behind the Yankees, the Angels, and perhaps most significantly, the Red Sox.  But with the Rays waiting on a few young players to produce at the levels they are capable of, it’s the back end of their rotation (which included Kazmir) that has left them behind the Red Sox in the wild card race.

Simply put, both the Red Sox and the Rays have enjoyed underwhelming results from the back of their rotations.  Both teams are currently using their super prospects (Clay Buchholz and David Price, respectively) to try to limit some of the bleeding.  But for the Rays, here I think is a spot where they could completely close the gap on their AL East brethren by being aggressive in their August waiver moves.  4.5 games is not a lot, especially when you have multiple series to decide it on the field.  But, while I like the Kazmir deal in a vacuum, I think the guy the Rays will replace him in the rotation with, Wade Davis, is not the kind of move that makes sense for them right now.

The Rays should have (still can?) make a move for the type of league average veteran who can help them get over the top and back into the playoffs for the second consecutive season.  I’m going to cite the Rockies here as a rare team that looks like they have beaten their small-market status and are on their way to return to the playoffs in the NL for the second time in three seasons.  The Rockies are a better team right now than they were two seasons ago, although their contributions are coming from many of the same sources: Troy Tulowitzski, Todd Helton, and Brad Hawpe.

But part of the Rockies’ success is attributable to the relative open-ness of the NL Wild Card.  If they were in a division where they had to win it to get in it, they’d be more of an underdog than the Rays currently are.  Furthermore, as the team’s 2008 season shows, there’s nothing the Rays can do to even ensure that they’ll be back in the same position they are right now next year.  They might finish in a distant third or even fourth next year, which (if they miss the playoffs this year) probably kick starts a lengthy rebuilding process in the AL East.

Baseball is not a fair game, and when the Tampa Bay Rays are even given a fair shake, like it appears they have this year, they have to do everything they can to make the postseason.  We know how much it hurts large market teams to miss the playoffs, but in this division, it’s probably more crippling to a team like the Rays to not capitalize on what they built last season, and return to the playoffs.

There is nothing they can do to guarentee a playoff spot, but they are hardly making it difficult on the Red Sox right now.  I say: load up the roster this September with everything you have, and do whatever you can to close the gap.  If it fails, then you haven’t lost too much additional money, in relative terms.  If you succeed, it probably makes the Rays a legit contender in the AL East for another two or three years, and puts them ahead of the curve financially while Boston might not be able to expand payroll next season without all that playoff revenue.  Cutting payroll is not difficult, but getting back to this level of performance is not something that many small market franchises have solved.

The reward for the Rays of going-for-broke seems to fair exceed the risk of actually going broke.

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  1. August 29, 2009 at 10:50 pm

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