The general consensus among Rays fans this offseason is that the team needs to go out and get a big name to pair with the impressive collection of young talent the team already has in store.
It makes sense.
Looking over the FanGraphs depth chart, the Rays have 10 hitters projected for at least 1.0 WAR in 2019, but their highest hitter projection is contributing only 3.1 WAR. They have seven pitchers projected for at least 1.0 WAR, but they only have one pitcher (reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell) projected for more than 2.0 WAR. The Rays are the antithesis to stars and scrubs, but is that necessarily a good thing?
Baseball is notoriously a weak-link sport. In fact, outside of soccer, it may be the “most” weak-link sport we have in the world.
A weak-link sport is simply a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell to define sports in which avoiding a terrible player is more important than possessing a great player. In other words, weak-link sports are sports in which it is favorable to have a solid, balanced roster instead of a top-heavy one.
Basketball is a strong-link sport. If you have LeBron James, you’re going to be good. In baseball, you can have Mike Trout and make the playoffs once in eight years.
Which brings us back to the 2018-19 MLB offseason.
The Rays would seemingly be in a perfect position to strike. They have the baseline “avoid the gaping hole” part of conquering MLB down pat. They are projected to be worth at least 1.0 WAR at every position in their starting lineup and rotation. They have a legitimate backup at every position, even with their arguable lack of outfield depth after trading Mallex Smith. The hour is nigh.
Here’s the thing, though: That may not be how the Rays Front Office is looking at it.
Since 2000, only one team has won the World Series with more than 20 percent of their payroll tied up in one player. Going back before that, only one team between 1985-2000 had more than even 15 percent of their payroll tied up in one contract.
As of right now, the Rays are running something like a $31.45 million payroll based on their current roster (h/t to our own JT Morgan and his chocolate factory of numbers he runs all offseason). Last year, the Rays payroll was somewhere around $68.8 million (Spotrac’s number), so they will clearly be adding some more money to that figure before the offseason is done.
No team has had a payroll lower than $50 million in the past five years, but before that Miami and Houston did carry payrolls as low as $35 million in 2013. Therefore, if we project a 2019 payroll of somewhere near $70 million, signing one player for somewhere in the ballpark of $20 million would constitute 28.5 percent of their 2019 salary, blowing past the previous high for a World Series champion (and the Rays ought to be thinking of themselves in this light if they want to be taken seriously).
However, to once again swing the argument back around, that may not be as crazy as it sounds.
The lone World Series champion to top 20 percent of their payroll with one player was the 2003 Miami Marlins. They paid Pudge Rodriguez $10 million of their $45.1 million payroll.
Doesn’t that seem like the most viable comparison to a potential Rays World Series?
Tampa Bay is never going to sport a $200+ million payroll like the 2018 Boston Red Sox or 2009 New York Yankees, who both won titles. Those teams still had players who made upwards of $30 million a year, it’s just that the team as a whole was paid so much that as a percentage it seemed less notable.
That should be the real takeaway from Sawchik’s piece: having a massive effing payroll allows a team to cover up a lot.
With Josh Donaldson (a DRB favored target this offseason) no longer on the market, there’s a good chance the Rays won’t break the bank for one particular player this offseason.
The best bet to get a hefty deal from the Rays would be Nelson Cruz who is more likely to be in the $10-15 million range than the $23 million it took to sign Donaldson.
However, there is also a timeline in which the Rays spend $5 million here on a backup outfield, $3 million there on some bullpen depth, and go into the season with a payroll around $50 million and no real stud signed in the offseason.
There will be some that point to Sawchik’s analysis and use that as rationale. Don’t be that person. This is indeed the offseason for the Rays to pull the trigger, and they need to get it done.
Paying an extra $5 million, or tacking on one more year to Nelson Cruz’s deal might not be appetizing, and it may not be what seems like the “smart” decision. That type of rationale isn’t going to cut it this offseason, though. Not when elite bats like Cruz or Donaldson or (dare I say) Goldschmidt are so readily available
The Rays have made all the smart and pennywise moves, and it’s time to get a stud to join Tommy Pham in the lineup, or a really good arm to join Snell atop the rotation.
We saw how good the Rays could be in 2018 without any laggers, now we need to see what they can do with a few stallions thrown into that mix.