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Rays owner Stuart Sternberg offers stinging criticism of Rays, players following World Series loss

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Sternberg’s first major interview following the Rays World Series loss to the Dodgers offers little hope for Rays baseball moving forward.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In his first sit-down with a member of the local media following the Rays 2020 loss to the Dodgers in the World Series, principal team owner Stuart Sternberg found a way to insult the fanbase, the region, the front office, the players, and himself.

It was a truly stunning interview from Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times from start to finish, but let’s start with the most surprising comment from the Rays owner.

As he was reflecting on the quality of the teams the Rays faced in the 2020 playoffs — namely the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers — Sternberg had this to say about his team:

“It’s hard to find too many of (the Rays) who would be starters on any of those teams,” he said. “It’s not like we’ve got this group of Hall-of-Famers and All-Stars.”

Sternberg said this about his own players.

This is unfathomable, but also easily debunked.

First, sure, the Rays might not have perennial All-Stars or consensus Hall of Fame players, but this is by design. It’s both difficult and rare for a player to be either of those things in their first three or four years, when rookie contracts pay at or near the league minimum. Top established players are expensive, and this team’s ownership is not interested in or willing to pay for Hall of Fame talent.

Second, though, is the odd complication that the Rays have All-Star caliber players on the roster, right now.

Does Sternberg truly believe Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, or Randy Arozarena could not have forced their way onto, say, the 2020 Dodgers and competed in the World Series?

Does he not know that Kevin Kiermaier might be the best defender in baseball, at any position?

Did he not just witness Arozarena’s historic postseason performance, one that forced Sternberg’s own $12 million free agent signing — Yoshi Tsutsugo — to the bench?

Of note: Only three players have received a larger free agent contract under Sternberg’s ownership: Pat Burrell, James Loney, and Charlie Morton. Among those three, only Morton was an All-Star. The Rays declined his contract option when the 2020 season ended. You get what you pay for!

But also, consider the pitching.

The Dodgers and Astros considered three of their starting pitchers up to the task in the playoffs. Either would have gladly taken Charlie Morton, but also Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, or Ryan Yarbrough. And let’s not forget the Yankees, where only Gerrit Cole was better than any of those Rays starters (if you filter by FIP, the Rays best him too).

In relief, the Astros bullpen was atrocious from start to finish, every Rays pitcher is better, and the Yankees would have taken much of the Rays bullpen over all but Britton and Chapman last season. I’d also wager the Dodgers would have loved to at least have baseball’s best reliever from 2019 and 2020 on their team in Nick Anderson.

Even more baffling, these comments from the team owner do no favors for his front office, either. Consider these excerpts from Sternberg reflecting on the quality of team his front offices have put together:

For the Rays to get to the World Series, [...] “was an almost insurmountable task,’” Sternberg said. “Really, nothing short of stunning.”

Similar, in some ways, to their previous World Series appearance in 2008, a five-game defeat by the Phillies. “You just sort of wandered out,” he said.

It’s ok to admit the Dodgers were good — historically good, like ‘98 Yankees good — but your Rays also took that team to Game 6. It was a battle, and for the most part well-fought. Why disparage what your front office accomplished, despite vast, self-imposed financial limitations?

MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe (middle) celebrates with designated hitter Randy Arozarena (left) and shortstop Willy Adames (1) and first baseman Ji-Man Choi (right) after hitting a home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the sixth inning of game four of the 2020 World Series at Globe Life Field.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

And if you thought the scorched earth approach would have stopped at the doors to Tropicana Field, well, you’d be wrong.

Sternberg said the Rays have made “tremendous progress” the past few months on the Montreal side in terms of stadium plans and business dealings with the group led by Stephen Bronfman. “I’ve been not just encouraged, but really beyond pleased on how things are progressing up there,” he said. [...]

“We are getting towards 2028 and you can’t snap your fingers and just have the stadium show up,” he said. “It’s getting trickier and trickier by the year to get something done. This year certainly set things back, but fortunately we’ve got [...] a very motivated group of people in Montreal who want us. [...] there’s no plan B right now.”

What began as a “split” concept of hosting baseball in two halves between Montreal and Tampa Bay has devolved into simply praising the efforts to get baseball back to Quebec.

Why would local politicians and business leaders here be lagging behind those in Montreal? Could it be the pandemic ravaging the sport, the world, and his team’s home state? Florida is one of three states in the country with over 1 million COVID cases, and will soon (possibly while you’re reading this) become the fourth state with 20,000 deaths, statistics on par with countries like Poland or Germany.

Why wouldn’t Sternberg take a moment to praise the local politicians efforts to curb the virus? You know, the people Sternberg needs on his side to pull off the split season concept for which there is no “Plan B”?

Let’s consider the Floridians themselves.

Charitably you can say Sternberg’s comments in this interview about fans in the stands were meant to be funny — after all, calling possible attendance restrictions of 10,000 fans “normal” for the Rays is a good burn — but sad and stinging truths are not fun for the people who are invested in following the Rays and who contribute to that team’s profitability.

Why stop at insulting the team when you can insult the entire Tampa Bay area as well?

MLB: World Series-Tampa Bay Rays at Los Angeles Dodgers
A view of the first pitch between Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Tony Gonsolin (46) and Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) during the first inning in game six of the 2020 World Series at Globe Life Field.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

But this interview was timed to occur alongside the Winter Meetings, right? Baseball’s time to sign players to contracts and acquire talent? Well if it’s the Rays that means talking about limitations.

Here the Rays owner had this to offer on his own state of affairs and the team’s financial situation:

With no fans buying tickets and concessions, no revenue-sharing check from Major League Baseball and additional expenses through the postseason, Sternberg said the Rays took a massive financial hit, though he declined to specify how much.

“A number I wouldn’t have imagined to lose in a baseball season,” he said — more than if there had been a work stoppage and they didn’t play at all.

“I think it’s going to be three to five years to where we’re able to sort of get a clear understanding of the new normal,” he said, citing local and league-wide revenues, ticket sales to fans and businesses, sponsorships and other data points.

That’s right! The Rays are not facing one offseason of difficulty, but “three to five years.” The situation in Tampa Bay is worse than if baseball didn’t happen at all! Making it to the World Series was a travesty of “additional expenses.”

Ultimately, this is all nonsense, because the Rays are sure to be profitable again sometime in the next two years, if not by the end of 2021 — should those 10,000 fans get allowed in, wink-wink everyone.

But also, baseball’s landscape shows us things should return to normal fairly quickly for everyone. Other teams certainly think so.

For context: The Braves just spent $11 million on Drew Smyly and then swooped in to steal Charlie Morton away for the value of the option the Rays declined ($15 million). How can they do this during a pandemic? The answer is actually pretty simple: TV deals. It would appear that teams made $69 million from MLB’s national television deals in 2020 during the regular season, a figure we can derive from the Braves publicly traded financial statements.

National TV deals make things a little easier for everyone, and for the Rays that amount covers more than twice the team’s prorated player salaries (~$27 million) from 2020, and would cover more than their current payroll before any additions at catcher or pitcher (~$64 million) for 2021. There is a reason baseball teams sell for billions of dollars.

As for the Rays cash flow in 2020, we do not know the team’s operating expenses, nor do we know what other sources of income might be flowing in, but we can compare to teams like the Braves and assume the Rays were able to break even or cut losses down enough that the various tax breaks and playoff revenue to come will at least help 2020 not be a devastating loss.

In the end, Sternberg trying to lower expectations to a “three to five” year recovery for the Rays finances is most assuredly bullshit, and should be called what it is: insulting.


As a coda, I cannot help but ask: What was this interview meant to accomplish?

If he meant to praise the Rays players, he failed. If he meant to engender good will with the front office — in the interview, Sternberg said the Rays operate as “a family business” and as an “employee-first organization,” and referred to his own approach in layoffs during the pandemic as “very soft” — well, that pitch missed a little outside as well.

And what of the local populous? Surely the lengthy comments about Montreal’s progress in pursuing a time share with his Florida team is designed to achieve some end, but what?

“I still hold out optimism that the local business leaders and local politicians will come around a bit and see the value proposition here in having baseball and doing it in a way that makes a bit more financial sense and doing it in a way that makes it a more robust project here because of the complement of being in Montreal as well,” Sternberg said.

The value proposition... to who?

At least after a bee stings you there’s honey to be savored. There is no good taste left in the mouth when you’re stung by a ray.