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Rays' Flexibility: It's Fuzzy Math

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When it comes to the upcoming trade deadline, it's hard to pin the Rays as a team that sees its current situation as the glass being half-full or half-empty. Based on Andrew Friedman's recent declaration of financial flexibility, it seems like the team's management is just happy to have a glass.

Friedman's comments came last weekend while the Rays were experiencing the horrors of Coors Field, and were reported in both the Tampa Tribune and the St. Pete Times. When it came to what the Rays were planning on doing during the next few weeks as the trade deadline approaches, Friedman said, "We are virtually salary independent. We've got flexibility. We've said this all along, we don't look at it as actual dollars out the door as much as we look at value and production per dollar. And being able to control a player through the next couple seasons is something that is much more important to us than the salary figures."

That statement says so much, yet says very little. The phrases "dollars out the door" and "production per dollar" jumped out at me first. I had a busy week at work this week, so during my rare free time I sat down and tried to craft the perfect mathematical equation to support or debunk Friedman's statements. I figured the way to measure a hitter's production per dollar was to see how much the Rays were paying for every base hit and every RBI knocked in. For pitchers, the production per dollar would be based on how much the team was paying for total base runners allowed and total earned runs scored. I based my theory on the fact that regardless of whatever new statistics and sabermetrics are getting thrown around, baseball teams win by scoring more runs than the other team.

So I had the basis of my equation, and after a couple cups of coffee I was all ready to pick apart the stats of the Rays to see if the team was really getting the best "production per dollar" possible. Then it hit me-- as analytical as this study would be, it wouldn't be fair. The Rays have only played 71 games, so I couldn't take a player's full season salary and determine his success or failure so far this season with that. Even if I figured out what percentage of the season 71 games represents and adjusted the player's salary to what he has earned so far, that wouldn't be fair either simply because some players start hot and cool off as the season progresses or vice-versa (call it the "Aubrey Huff Effect").

If I'm going to criticize or praise the team for its financial decisions, I'm going to be fair about it. When it comes to "production per dollar" it would only be fair to assess that value at the end of the season when everyone's production is complete. With my scientific formulas put on the back burner, I sat back and re-read Friedman's statements. In that, the larger picture of the team's planning, is the mother of all contradictions.

At first Friedman says the team "is virtually salary independent" and has "flexibility". He then follows that up with the production per dollar comment and stressing the importance of controlling a player's contract (pre-arbitration, pre-free agency). So I ask you this; how can a team be salary independent and flexible while narrowing its options on players to the most cost-effective and salary-controlable? If you have true flexibility, then paying the big bucks for that one or two players that take your team to the next level shouldn't be a big deal. If you don't have true flexibility, then you're being very cautious about how you spend your money (thus the production per dollar and salary control angle). Basically you have to be one or the other, you can't be both at the same time.

Whenever I bring up payroll and player acquisition with the Rays I always have to remind readers that I do not want the Rays to just go out and throw $160 million at a few high-priced free agents and hope for the best. While history shows in the past 15 years most World Series winners are in the top ten in overall payroll costs, there has to be some responsibility in spending. With today's absurd prices for some mediocre players, you have to be extra careful with how you spend your money. But you can't just sit with a group of easy-to-control young players and hope all turns out well over time. Sometimes, you have to take a risk with a pricey free agent or a veteran player acquired in a trade that will cost you a top prospect. All championship teams take that risk, and if the Rays want to become a championship team they will have to do that sooner or later.

Would a risk by bringing in a pricey player from the outside mean instant success? More than likely it wouldn't, but it would send the message that the team is serious about growing a winner and not merely growing revenue and pre-tax income in the name of a "nontraditional approach". Friedman says the Rays are, "100 percent committed to continuing to improve our team, and improve it in the near term but also maintain our focus on the long term." I'm all for that, but you have to wonder how long it will take to truly improve the team from what it was in the past. Judging by the numbers, if the Rays stay on the same course in terms of payroll and choosing youth over experience they might just miss that 2008 and 2009 target for the playoffs.

In case you haven't noticed, the Rays' approach to building a team has failed to fix the biggest problem slowing down the construction process: the pitching staff. As of Saturday morning, the Rays have the worst pitching staff in the league in terms of ERA and opponant batting average. Offensively, the Rays are 13th in MLB in batting average and 11th in runs scored-- numbers that on face value look pretty decent. But when you have a pitching staff allowing the most runs per game in the majors (435-- 14 more than the horrid Texas Rangers) having an offense on the cusp of the top ten will only take you so far. Yes, I know there are some great prospects coming up in the minors, and even a couple (Andy Sonnanstine, J.P. Howell) are already here and have had some flashes of brilliance. But here comes the most telling stat.

While wringing their hands over "production per dollar" and having pre-free agent players stocking up the active roster, the Rays are currently 31-40 after 71 games. Last season after 71 games, the Rays were 30-41. That's one year, one smaller payroll, and one more win. Forgive me for not popping the champagne just yet.

Still, the Rays get a pass for this. Maybe it's the free parking, the giant video boards, or a smiling Stuart Sternberg, but if we heard this same material and had the same results under Vince Namoli something tells me there would be more of an outrage. Of course Rome wasn't built in a day, and this is a work in progress. But I have a hunch the moves the team makes (or doesn't make) at the trade deadline and during the winter will show us how it really feels about building a sustainable winner.

Then we'll see if the Rays truly are flexible, or too tight when it comes to paying the price for the players that will make this team a winner.

Other notes from Raysland:

  • If you read John Romano's column in today's St. Pete Times, you'd think Elijah Dukes was invited to a 17-year-old's sleepover. The assignment of Dukes to the minors is not the answer everybody involved in this mess wanted. However, it's the best thing the Rays could do at this very moment. Dukes will go to the minors and get away from the dark cloud hanging over him in the Tampa Bay area. In the meantime, the Rays will have five more weeks to hope he performs well in the minors so he actually has some trade value. No matter how much potential Dukes has, his .190 batting average and well-known emotional issues won't make him a hot commodity. And no matter how much Dukes' critics don't like this move, the Rays management and ownership is still running a business. You simply can't give up a player for nothing, even if it is to clear the air with his departure. Without naming names, I know of former Rays players who were jettisoned from the team for reasons just as bad as Dukes'. But unlike those other former players, Dukes still has some value and a whole lot more potential. On a personal level, you also can't just kick Dukes to the curb. This guy needs help, and if sending him to the minors is the best way to do it then so be it. As for what message this sends from the Rays to fans about domestic violence, there shouldn't be one. The best message is guys just shouldn't beat up their women, and women involved in abusive relationships should find the strength to separate themselves from the abusers. What Elijah Dukes does, or did, will not raise or lower the amount of domestic abuse cases in the Tampa Bay area.
  • Rocco Baldelli is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, and I know his constant injuries are driving him insane. The Rays have to wonder though how much longer this will go on and how much of an effect it will have on the future of the team. With a very team-friendly contract, the Rays have time to work with Baldelli through his injury troubles. But the time will have to come (probably after 2009) when the team will have to decide if it's worth keeping Baldelli around or to let him loose. For his sake, I hope this is the last major injury he has so he can finally show us everything he's capable of.
  • Since being recalled by the Rays on June 14th, Jonny Gomes is hitting .406 (in 32 at-bats) with four homers and nine RBI. Since Gomes was sent down to Durham on May 29th, Jorge "Trade Me Now Dammit!" Cantu has had five hits in 19 at-bats, zero homers, and three RBI. I guess all that pouting done by Cantu this season has really helped him out. Or maybe not, but definitely one of the two.
  • While everyone in Tampa Bay seems just fine with the Rays and their "two to three year plan", Rangers' shortstop Michael Young wants nothing of the sort in Texas. Upon hearing the Rangers may (again) blow up the team in the hopes of being a winner by 2010, Young told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Wednesday, ""I'm going to assume that this isn't going to be the case. Hopefully we can all come to the realization that this is unacceptable and we find a way to get better now. We play in [Dallas-Fort Worth]. It's an unbelievable sports town. We need a winner; it's as simple as that." Young recently signed a seven-year deal to stay in Texas, and could have gotten a lot more money elsewhere but decided to stay in Texas with the idea the Rangers were close to building a winner. It should be interesting to see if a Rays player ever says something similar. Hopefully, the team won't give that player a reason to spout off about a never-ending rebuilding process.
  • Speaking of never-ending rebuilding, Joe Girardi's "thanks but no thanks" to the Baltimore Orioles' open manager job says alot about how much Peter Angelos has ruined that once proud franchise.
  • Finally, if you think the Rays get no respect, check out the plight of the East Coast Hockey League's Dayton Bombers. The Bombers, at risk of closing up shop because of poor play and low attendance, shocked the ECHL by making a drive to the league's finals against the Idaho Steelheads. Problem was the people running the show at Nutter Arena, the home of the Bombers, apparently didn't think the Bombers would make it as far as the championship round. According to The Hockey News, the Bombers had to use some creative scheduling to get their home games on the calendar because the Gem City Rollergirls rolling skating team already had the arena booked. That's right, the championship hockey games were bumped due to the women's rolling skating team. Hockey may not last much longer in Dayton, but that's just a guess on my part.
*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.