I love the Rays, I really do. It's easy for some people to read what I say and label me a hater. Sure I can be negative, but it's with the best of intentions. I just really want to see this team succeed, and before I join a retirement community in Punta Gorda (which is still 36 years away kids). But recent observations, and things I've heard, since the meetings in Orlando make me wonder how successful the NDRO's plan is going to be. Here's what I'm talking about:
* The Rays' system of building through "cheap alternatives" just won't work right now. The phrase "cheap alternatives" came right out of Andrew Friedman's mouth during an interview with me and Fred McGriff on July 15th. He was referring to the types of free agents the Rays were planning on building with. That building plan would have worked five to ten years ago, but it is not the way to go now.
With baseball owners and players raking in the dough nowadays (and don't let them tell you otherwise), spending with a rediculously small payroll isn't the best way to go. Sure, a team with endless potential and some pretty good talent like the Rays could surprise some people, but do you honestly think the team the Rays have now can win 25 to 30 more games than last year? Maybe five to ten, but 30?!? I doubt it.
Besides, fringe players you get for super cheap work best in utility jobs for well-stocked teams. There are only so many Ty Wigginton stories out there. I know what you're thinking though... it's not about now... IT'S ABOUT THE FUTURE!
* The Rays' system of building through "cheap alterantives" won't work in the future either. You may have noticed the talk about the "exciting young nucleus" riding off in the sunset with a World Series trophy in 2008 has quieted recently. That may have something to do with the shell shock of what some free agents are getting nowadays. Gil Meche gets $55 million over five years from Kansas City? J.D. Drew gets $70 million over five years from Boston? Even Eric Gagne, who has pitched a whopping 15 1/3 innings TOTAL the past two seasons, can get $6 million from Texas.
This goes back to my column last week wondering how long the Rays plan on this "cheaper is better" routine, because I simply don't see it lasting long. It may work now when you want to give your young prospects plenty of playing time in the majors, but when guys like Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young, and Scott Kazmir, come of age to get the big bucks I doubt the team will offer the big contracts the players deserve. Then we go through the rebuilding process every four years. If the Rays want to be a perrenial success story, they will have to shift gears from "cheap" to "investing" much sooner than later. Think 2008 when I say invest. That leads me to...
* The Rays really should make a run at a couple of the non-tendered free agents. Ty Wigginton was a steal last season because the talented infielder was given up on by both the Mets and Pirates. Given a full season to show what he can do, he helped the Rays keep their head above the water. But as I mentioned earlier, there are only so many Wiggington-like stories out there. The non-tendered free agents have proven in the past they can do something, so it will cost more to get them. I think the Rays should make a run at Marcus Giles, Joel Piniero, and even Mark Hendrickson.
Offensively Giles is about the same as Jorge Cantu, but defensively he is much stronger which is really what you want out of your middle infielders. Problem is, he'll cost around $5 million. Since the Rays didn't want to pay that to any of the potential free agents they jettisoned last season, I won't get my hopes up.
It'll cost just as much to get Piniero who seemed to be the next great pitcher in Seattle back in 2002 and 2003. As the Mariners went through a free-fall, so did Piniero who still has the physical tools but maybe not the mental material. I still think he would be a good pick-up, as I would rather have a 28-year-old playoff-tested pitcher in the number two or three spot instead of a 22-year old prospect getting his ass handed to him every other night.
The same goes for Hendrickson. The beloved "Lurch", who I finally grew warm to after bashing him in the 2005 season, can at least eat up a ton of innings in the majors while a prospect finely tunes his craft in Durham.
* No matter how prepared Friedman and Matt Silverman said they were for the meetings, they still have a long ways to go. And I really mean this is the kindest of ways. The guys went in thinking they would be the story of the meetings by putting together a team of decent free agents and maybe really contending in the near-future. Instead, any ideas of that story were blown out of the water by some of the monster contracts getting thrown around to average ballplayers. For the NDRO to be successful, the focus has to (again) shift to "invest" sooner than later. The mindset of Moneyball and algebraic formulas on player performance needs to get stashed away too. Baseball is in a wave of "you get what you pay for" and if you piece together a team of has-beens and never-will-bes, guess what you will get in the end.
* Please stop talking about your depth. Proudly assessing the loss of Josh Hamilton as a symbol of how deep your club is is absolutely hysterical and sad at the same time. The Reds saw an opportunity in Hamilton while the Rays didn't, preferring to keep the likes of Damon Hollins on the 40-man roster only to not tender an offer to him. Every team has five or six minor league teams filled with pitchers and position players who one day just might make it to the show. Yet I don't hear other GMs going around screaming, "LOOK AT OUR FARM CLUBS! THEY'RE SPECTACULAR!"
Rebuilding the minor league system was a must, and I commend the NDRO on making that one of their top priorites since it was such a mess under the ODRO. But as long as you keep talking about your minor league depth, the more the other 29 teams will look at your major leaguers since you obviously aren't so concerned about them.
I know, it sounds negative, but I'm just weary on where this is going. I also know Rome wasn't built in a day, but many cities remained tiny dots on the map because they weren't organized right. I hope the NDRO proves me wrong sooner than later. But if it is to do so, some tweaking of the master plan will have to be done in the face of a very powerful free agent market.