I just wanted to get your attention since it's easy to get lost in the smokescreen from the unofficial announcement the Rays are dropping the "Devil" from their name. While some are wondering if the name will merely be the "Rays" and to how much blue is in the new logo, I thought I'd bring up a topic getting overlooked by a few people. Basically, it's all about patience as this team continues to rebuild. I'm not talking about fan patience or media patience... I'm talking about the players.
Believe it or not, it's easy to forget about how patient the players are in this whole rebuilding process. Fans in the Tampa Bay area are pretty thinned out when it comes to patiently waiting for the Rays to turn things around, but you know they'll show up in droves at the Trop with their "throwback" Brent Abernathy jersies if/when this team does become a winner. As for the media, they'll show up to when it's apparent the Rays are a hot thing. I should know as quite a few reporters/writers who have been MIA from Tampa Bay Lightning games and practices have magically reappeared asking the same cliche questions. But what about the players? Can THEY wait a few more years to finally make the playoffs here, or are they ready to fly the coop?
With that I give you the high-wire balancing act the Rays are doing this season and likely next. The lack of free agent spending and trades to vastly improve this club now, plus public comments that building a winner will be a long process, indicates the team is going young and trying to build from within. You can argue until the cows come home whether this is a good strategy or not. Whether you like it or not, this is the way the team is going so be it. I'm cool with that. But when an established team (note I said "established" and not "expansion" since this franchise is ten years old on the field now) decides to rebuild and do so from within, it is hoping the seeds of youth planted in the past will meld with the new youthful moves being made now. It is also hoping the current stars, part of the wave of momentum that SHOULD become a winner, remain satisfied and are willing to go through a few more brutal seasons before possibly making a playoff run.
That, my friend, is a very dangerous balancing act. Thanks to Vince Namoli and the circus act that was the ODRO, the NDRO has no safety net beneath it in case it stumbles.
One of the things working the Rays' way is they have control over most of the pieces that are supposed to form a championship team. Whether it's a young guy who still has three or four years under his belt before free agency, or players such as Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli being signed to long-term contracts, there are a few more certainties than questions regarding the near future of some players. But there are a few players nearing arbitration status, notably Scott Kazmir. Some key parts, such as Ty Wigginton, have already reached that point and rightfully earned a raise. Crawford and Baldelli are halfway through their contracts. The big question is when the time comes in about three years to sign players to new long-term deals, or when the arbitration figures rise substantially by that time, will the players want to remain here if the team still isn't a legitimate contender?
Only time will tell us that answer, and it doesn't take much of an imagination to see where we might be heading if not much changes. Crawford has already expressed his disinterest on being on a losing team, with memorable quotes like, "I hate walking around known as a team that loses all the time." Another player who is a key to this team's future success, who I will not name bacause I'm not interested in starting rumors, has at this point in time let everyone know he really doesn't want to be here for all eternity. The only way to change that is to win, and make Tampa Bay a destination for free agents while maintaining your core star players.
Of course another question mark in this whole ordeal is will the NDRO spend the money necessary in three to four years when the time comes to retain Crawford, Baldelli, Kazmir, and the rest? If these particular players are still cornerstones of an up and coming team, the answer should be a resounding "yes". The NDRO is saying all the right things now, proclaiming the money saved on not splurging in the free agent market now will go back to retaining the team's current stars in the future. Right now you have to take their word. In the future, I expect you to hold them to it.
It still comes down to the players though. If this team by 2009 or 2010 is still hovering around .500, constantly ending up in third place 15 games behind the Yankees or Red Sox in the AL East, would a player want to stay here or see if the grass (and the cash) really is greener elsewhere? Sure, players say they want to be here when this team wins, especially when they sign a new contract. Hell for $3 or $4 million a year I'd scrub sewage tanks for 12 hours a day. If this team isn't quite yet a winner, but is better than what it is now, will the player stay here?
That again will be something only time will tell. But I'm hedging my bets on "no" for most of the players. There are plenty of reasons why players would want to play here: no state taxes, good weather most of the year, golfing, fishing, boating, etc. But for those athletes who are driven to win, and who don't mind a nice paycheck going along with that winning attitude, merely living in paradise isn't enough. Let's say the Rays in the near future offer Kazmir an average of $10 million per year for four or five years (the going rate for good, young pitchers). If the Yankees counter with the exact same offer, which one does he choose? A nice place to live with an average team, or a chillier place to live but with a team expected to win every year? It depends on Kazmir's priorities. But after a flight to the All-Star game on Alex Rodriguez's personal jet, it's hard to look the other way. After all, you can still have a nice house in Florida while playing for the Yankees (most Yankee players do).
To say the least it should be interesting to see how this whole balancing act plays out. Will the players want to come back to a rebuilding effort? Will the NDRO offer fair market value to pending free agents and arbitration-ready players? Will this attempt at finally building a winner in Tampa Bay come together because both the players and the NDRO want a winner? Or will we keep hearing about the next "exciting young nucleus" of players as we enjoy free parking and a touch tank while losing 101 games again? We'll find out the answer to those questions within the next few years, wearing whatever colors the Rays are wearing.