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Craig Kimbrel decision points to possible Rays free agent dilemma

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Now that the team is willing to spend: Can the Rays acquire baseball’s elite in free agency?

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays have long been a popular free agent destination for players looking to rehabilitate their value.

This is not because the Rays will shell out top dollar to land the marquee players on the market, or guarantee them long term contracts. No, players tend to choose Tampa Bay due to the team itself; their always progressive thinking front office that finds that be ways to enhance a player’s abilities and get the most of out a player during his time with the team.

They have done this so many times in the past with the Joaquin Benoit, Jeff Keppinger, Logan Morrsion, Wilson Ramos, and now Avisail Garcia, who is boasting a 131 wRC+ this season.

The Rays feature one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, their Major League team is currently sporting one of the best records in all of baseball (sitting a half game back in the AL East), and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that the Rays won’t be playing in the postseason later this year.

Despite the new supply of funds, a warm ocean, a tax free state, and the winning atmosphere, the Tampa Bay Rays lost out on one of the best pitchers to have graced a mound... due to attendance.

At least, that’s how the player framed the decision. During his introductory press conference, All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel addressed the media and told them;

“One thing that’s important to me … as well is being able to play in front of a fan base that is as passionate about this game as I am. I did get to experience that in Boston. And it’d be hard to leave that kind of passion each and every night, especially in the role that I am. I’m a very adrenaline-based player. And knowing that each and every night that the seats are going to be full, that definitely played a huge part in this decision.”

Ouch.

According to a report from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Tampa Bay Rays offered Craig Kimbrel two different deals — 3 YR, $39M or 2 YR, $31M.

Kimbrel wound up signing a three year, $43M deal with the Chicago Cubs, with an option for a fourth year.

Granted, Kimbrel could be an outlier, but the Rays attendance has been a known issue around the game for a long time.

During their days with the franchise, Evan Longoria and David Price were very outspoken regarding the number of empty seats at Tropicana Field, even in one case leading to the Rays giving away 20,000 tickets in an attempt to fill the stadium to capacity as they closed out their division winning 2010 campaign.

This past December, Tommy Pham made headlines when he discussed Rays attendance when he was asked about the change from St Louis to Tampa Bay, saying the following:

“It sucks going from playing in front of a great fan base to a team with really no fan base at all. St. Louis, they’re one of the few teams to where day in and day out they have 40,000 fans at every game.”

”That’s something that I miss, because even here in the Dominican they have a strong fan base for the team I’m playing for. Their fans are very supportive, they’re loud. And the Rays? They just don’t have that.”

That’s not to say that Tommy Pham isn’t glad to be playing for the Rays; he seems to be having a great time and certainly appreciates those who do show up to the games, but playing in front of a mostly empty stadium can put a strain on a player, and Pham is not alone in this sentiment.

In February, Chris Archer made comments about his own transition. The longtime Rays ace was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates after seven seasons with the Rays. During his session with the media he told the reporters that he realized home-field advantage is a real thing.

“Probably for the first time in my career, I realized home-field advantage is a real thing. Having those fans in your corner, I’ve never experienced it on that level.’’

“It’s going to be a lot of fun. The energy in the city around that time of the year, it’s always buzzing. I’ve never been a part of it. I’ve only heard. And I can’t wait to experience it.”

The Rays are trying to fill the seats at Tropicana Field. Entering the season; they made another round of renovations to the stadium to make it more appealing, such as the introduction of a new LED lighting system that allows them to change the color of the Tropicana Field canopy during special moments.

For their upcoming home stand, the Rays held a flash sale as they allowed fans to purchase tickets for just $5 for the five weekday games from June 10th to June 14th — they sold out of the $5 tickets for just two of the five games.

The Rays players were appreciative of the effort, with Kevin Kiermaier addressing it with the Tampa Bay Times.

“I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s a great thing to do for us players. With our record and what we’ve done so far this year we like to think we deserve to play in front of a great home crowd. When I say that, meaning 20,000 plus.”

Make no mistake: the Rays a strong fanbase, those fans just don’t purchase very many tickets.

Instead, our fans spend their nights in front of their television sets, or phone/laptop/plasma 4K Ultra HD screens, as we noted in the aftermath of Pham’s comments:

In 2018, Rays games were the top prime time draw among area cable TV viewers, and third most watched prime time TV overall.

With a household share of 2.45, the Rays broadcasts were bigger in their market than those of such teams as the LA Dodgers and the New York Mets – although of course that represents a smaller number of households than in bigger cities, but even still: Tommy, please know that fans across the region are watching.

For over a decade, the Rays have been trying, in vain, to build a new stadium at a couple of sites in the Tampa Bay area. In 2008, plans fell through for a site at Al Lang stadium and much more recently, they were unsuccessful in their plans to build a stadium in Ybor City.

The Rays are locked into a lease at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season, but their future beyond that is becoming increasingly uncertain as the attendance in Tampa Bay dwindles. The Rays might not be around when 2028 arrives.

Craig Kimbrel may prove to be an exception and the Rays may land more notable marquee free agents in the future. However, attendance is an ongoing issue at Tropicana Field that brings scrutiny from people in all facets of the game and needs to be resolved, otherwise cases like Kimbrel will become the new norm when it comes to pursuing elite free agents within their price range... at least until the stadium location is resolved — in Florida or elsewhere.