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Why is it difficult to write about the Tampa Bay Rays?

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Forgive me for getting meta

Tampa Bay Rays Photo Day Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In discussing the Tampa Bay Rays and analyzing the moves they make (or don’t), we at DRaysBay have found that there is a bar that must be cleared if an article by another publication providing the same content is to be respected.

We’ve called it “intellectual honesty,” and we have taken a lot of heat for it.

A writer who was the best in the baseball journalism sphere at this task has also just been hired by the very team we cover. When it comes to writing about the Rays (as Jeff Sullivan often did), I’m not sure who is left to take up that mantle.

This is an audacious thought and one I’ve wrestled with for a while now, but i’m not doing myself any favors by sitting on this point, so lets turn to a more palatable question: what does it mean to be intellectually honest?

It’s easy to provide the most basic levels of research and reach a conclusion that is not grounded in analysis. We see this when articles merely see a lower payroll for the team and conclude the Rays will be bad or are run poorly.

This bothers us because to be intellectually honest requires not only solid analysis but also an understanding of motivations.

It’s quite possible for an article to provide accurate analysis about a concept like, say, The Opener and its effectiveness, and reach an astonishing conclusion like the Rays are making such an industry impacting move at the major league level because they want to manipulate a rookie’s arbitration hearing in four years to save a couple bucks. This conclusion postulates that the Rays are cheap, begging the question as to their motivation.

In life, I have found that the best answer in most scenarios is often the easiest. In this example, the Rays lost three starting pitchers to Tommy John surgery, a fourth needed an elbow procedure performed, and a fifth was ineffective when called upon. The Rays needed to use rookies they did not plan to promote (or at least feature heavily) but still wanted to compete, so they tried something new and won half of those games.

For baseball writers at the national level, this is an easy detail to miss, and an even easier one to gloss over if your belief in the team’s motivation will always be in line with a track record of historically low payrolls.

But is it fair to expect those writers to know the Rays motivations?

Front Office speak

Tampa Bay’s front office is notoriously quiet; moves are rarely discussed, prospective moves do not leak. When the front office does speak, it is often in answers that dance around a topic at hand to perfection, with more science than art.

Ask, for instance, about the Winter Meetings and this is an answer you’ll get:

“This is a time to look at a wide array of possibilities,’’ Bloom said. “The important thing for us is make sure we balance our opinion that we have a group that is capable right now of competing for the postseason with knowing this is something we want to do not just once, but we want to do year in and year out and have a consistently and sustainably competitive club.’’

That’s not an answer, but more specifically this was not an answer to a question regarding whether the Rays would pursue Bryce Harper. The full minute-long clip is worth your time if you do not have an appreciation for the Rays-speak that comes from the front office:

There was an easy answer to this: Nope!

But that’s not what the Rays front office will provide, and that’s on an easy question. If the Rays front office won’t play ball on the simplest of questions, then the hard ones — like “what is your motivation behind this move” — become all the more difficult to answer.

With the benefit of a full off-season you could now ask: Why did the Rays sign Avisail Garcia instead of Bryce Harper?

We know the easy answer is money, but it’s interesting how the strategic elements are easily dismissed when you consider the answer when comparing the conversation had about players like Ryan Yarbrough and The Opener.

Yes, $3 million vs $330 million is the elephant, but put that aside. The Rays have a major league-ready rookie in camp who plays right field and needs a fair shake for playing time, but could also use roster protection should he struggle or need platoon help along the way. The team’s answer fits a narrative — but it’s one about giving a blue chip prospect an opportunity, not just about money.

Such nuanced takes require an understanding of motivations, because the elephant is not standing in the room, it’s blocking the door to any real change at a team level, while the CBA creates road blocks and complications that the team will not be diverting from anytime soon so long as there’s a tangible, financial benefit to the club and their peers.

The front office will continue tip toeing around the elephant for the foreseeable future, and any analysis of the Rays moves should recognize that reality.

Motivations for writing this article

When trying to explain most baseball moves, the easiest answer is often the right one: The Rays have limited resources, and they make moves accordingly.

But to write well on each move also requires context and an understanding of motivations, and that part will continue to be more difficult so long as the team can obfuscate on the hard stuff, while the owner shuts the door on the fun stuff.

At the 1,000 foot level view of this team, the elephant is still there; it’s visible from space. But there’s more to this team and its roster construction than being cheap.

The Rays are always admittedly trying to be competitive enough. Eschewing Cubs/Astros level tanks to rebuild are not sexy, and the Rays were not good enough from 2014-2017, but the team continues to be motivated. You can slice and dice their moves anyway you’d like, but you’ll be cutting open more than a money bag.

Let me say what Darby said last year: at no point do I assume the Rays ownership or front office is operating in bad faith. Writing about this team is hard, competing in the AL East is hard, and making money is evidently also hard.

Businesses are built to make money, even entertainment businesses like the $10 billion enterprise of Major League Baseball, where the Rays make so much less than their peers that they are one of four teams to qualify for revenue sharing.

At a macro level money is a factor, but on a micro level there is more than meets the eye, particularly when it comes to the Rays motivations.