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Bucks, Bullpens, Big Hopes, and a Bunch of Other Stuff

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No, this isn't an Ernest Hooper column, although the headline may indicate it is (just kidding Hoop... e-mail me some time).

With the Lightning's playoff story coming to a quick end, my mind has thawed out and now I'm diving in to some more baseball notes. This week, some of my favorite topics are up for discussion: the Forbes list, the Rays bullpen, and how much faith can we put in these Rays youngsters?

As mentioned earlier on this website, the Forbes "Business of Baseball" story came out several days ago and I can't be surprised one bit by what was reported. Despite the kavetching and moaning of baseball owners over the years, operating income (a.k.a. money gained or lost before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amoritization) is as high as it has ever been. Based on Forbes' accounting, 29 of the 30 teams made a profit of at least $5 million or more in 2006. Now you may realize why I was so mad at MLB for trying to make MLB Extra Innings a satellite-exclusive program. It was a money grab that crapped all over the fans who have helped the owners make more money than ever before. But I digress...

Before I dive into the Rays section of this column, I found interesting the collection of "woe is me" ballclubs making hand-over-fist money interesting. The Marlins, thanks mostly to payroll gutting and an unexpectedly competitive team, made the most with about $43.4 million. Amazingly this same franchise refused to bridge the narrow gap in financing plans between themselves and civic leaders in South Florida for a new stadium. The city of San Antonio is still crying in the shower after what the Marlins did to them last year before settling down to discuss a new stadium near Hialeah. I can't feel too bad for San Antonio though... they were "asking for it". Take it from a long-time Tampa Bay resident who saw his community wined and dined by at least a dozen teams looking for new ballparks in their cities.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, now entering year 15 of "rebuilding", made about $25.3 million. Despite cries from Pirates fans for change, Pirates' ownership says the team is not for sale. I can't imagine why not.

The Boston Red Sox refused to pick up the $6 million tab for Cory Lidle and Bobby Abreu in two seperate deals with the Philles that would have brought both players to Fenway Park. Theo Epstien said the team had to not overspend, the Yankees swooped in for both players, and for the first time since 1997 the Sox finished worse than second in the AL East. The Sox raked in an estimated $19.5 million. Wicked.

The only team to clearly lose money was the Yankees, throwing out $25.2 million with payroll and luxury taxes. With no championships since 2000, even George Steinbrenner realized too much was going out the door. But with an estimated value of $1.2 BILLION, some how $25.2 million out the door is akin to throwing a couple of chairs off the Titanic. Still, the irony that all of the "small market" teams blasting the big, bad Yankees for making baseball so uncompetitive in turn reportedly made millions upon millions more than the Yankees is not lost on me.

So now we look at the Rays, who reportedly made $20.2 million in 2006, roughly the same reported for 2005. The Rays' brass has nothing to say about the Frobes report, and they have the right not to. If you say the report is right, people question how you're spending your money. If you say the report is wrong, you suggest a respected publication such as Forbes, which can balance a checkbook with its eyes closed, is somehow clueless as to how business works. The funny thing is about the Rays "reaction" is the total lack of reaction from the local media.

In past seasons, everyone was up in arms when the Forbes report came out. If Vince Namoli made any where near $20 million a season, and he allegedly did a couple of times, the story would be front page news in the local papers and topic #1 on talk radio. This year, the story was barely a blurb in the press and talk radio buzzed with who the Bucs were going to pick first. So I ask; "Where is the outrage?". Is the lack of public reaction the ultimate sign of apathy in this market? Is the honeymoon with Stu Sternberg and company not as close to the twilight as many people projected? Is the lack of press coverage the trade-off for cushy interviews with Sternberg where the hardest question is what his favorite Bruce Springsteen song is? I wish I knew the answer, but one thing is quite clear to me: even though Sternberg is allegedly making as much as Namoli has in past seasons, nobody is staging fan walkouts or throwing their hands up in disgust.

Now to be fair, Sternberg has spent more money on improving the franchise in more than a year than Namoli did in ten. The Trop is a MUCH nicer place, and almost looks like a ballpark with its new scoreboards and outfield setup. The team has made some very good public relations deals such as dollar hot dogs (my idea, by the way... May 2006) and promoting a day at the Trop as "more than just a game". Baseball-wise, the team has replanted the foundation in international scouting while straightening up the minor leagues. The big money has not been added to the payroll at the big league level yet, but with the public knowledge of how much the team apparently makes, that should happen any day now (right?!?).

I don't have access to the books at Tropicana Field, and I haven't seen the memo from Sternberg's New York office line-itemizing how much is to be this year. All I do know is unless Forbes' accounting methods are all jabberwocky, the Rays made some pretty decent money last season despite having the worst team on the field. So now I ask you this; "Can we PLEASE stop calling this a 'small market' team?".

I've done the homework before on this market, which consists of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee, Polk, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, and several other adjacent counties. There's about four million people living here, and despite high costs for housing, insurance, and property taxes, this market continues to grow, and with it money continues to flow in from new residents or those old enough and fiscally responsible enough to know how to properly spend (or save) a buck. Basically, there's enough disposable income for someone to attend a few baseball games since the Rays undoubtedly have the cheapest sports ticket in town. The $20.2 million alleged to have been earned by the Rays was done with a 22% attendance increase over 2005, and with the third-highest "player expenses" (payroll+benefits+bonuses) in club history. Even though the Rays' total team value is ranked 29th in the majors, it is at it's highest in club history.

So let's (that's media, fans, AND team management) stop using this excuse of being a small market. In terms of actual market size, Tampa Bay is just about the same size as Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. The true "small markets" are Kansas City and Milwaukee. They reportedly made a combined $29.2 million in 2006, so I'm just not buying the whole "small market" crap any more. Are we a small-ER market than New York or Los Angeles? Yes. But does that make us less able to spend money on the major league team, and not just the ballpark? No. If the franchise can make a decent profit off the worst team on the field, in front of a half-empty stadium, imagine what it could do with a winning team and a sold out ballpark

We can imagine only if we can get over that whole "small market" thing.

* With a 7-11 record (as of Monday morning) and not too many problems with the offense, there's a lot of press regarding the hope that the Rays' youth may finally help the team turn the corner. Eighteen games is a bit early to proclaim all is well with the team and it's future, but with the strong start by B.J. Upton, Akinori Iwamura, and Delmon Young, there's plenty of good reasons why the youth of the team has to be praised. But as I've said before, you can't entirely rely on youth. Ask the 2006 Cleveland Indians about that. The team didn't add to the youth that overachieved in 2005, fell in 2006, and is hoping it all comes together this year. The Rays made this same mistake after 2004, and can't make it again.

* An update on the Rays pitching staff, following another bullpen blowup yesterday. In terms of ERA, the entire Rays staff is still dead last with a 6.02 ERA, a full .39 higher than 29th-ranked Seattle. In terms of opponants' batting average, the Rays have improved to 28th, but the .287 average is still way too high. If the Rays want to build around the youthful bats and make this team a winner, the changes have to come to the pitching staff sooner than later. And the changes have to be done, not just talked about in passing once the season starts.

* Interesting note on Jose Capellan: The Brewers won't call him up from AAA after he left Nashville for a couple of days in a huff over not getting traded. Not so sure if this guy fits the "Rays way" in terms of attitude. In terms of "low risk, high reward", for the right price the Rays will likely trip over their own feet to get him.

* Brace yourself, the Yankees come in to the Trop after getting swept by the Red Sox this weekend. It could get ugly, and quick.

* Gee, Mark Prior may be shut down for the season. Didn't see that coming.

* Gee, Lou Piniella is complaining about not having enough good pitchers on his team. Didn't see that coming.

* Finally, a hockey note. While I'm sad at the Lightning's early departure, I'm really glad the Penguins were eliminated earlier. Perhaps the NHL, and its broadcasters, will now realize there are some other pretty darned good players not named Sidney Crosby.

*DISCLAIMER: As of this summer, Matt Sammon is now a part-time, paid employee of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' ownership, management, players, coaches, or other employees.*