First Pitch: Rays mediocrity will last without financial help

First Pitch: Rays mediocrity will last without financial help
September 20, 2012, 5:05 pm
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Barring a miracle finish -- and remember, last year they squeaked into the post-season in the final inning of their final game -- the Tampa Bay Rays will not be going to the playoffs this year.

There's no great shame there, of course. The Rays have reached the post-season in three of the last four seasons and won the American League East crown twice in that span -- or, once more than the Red Sox have in the last decade.

Naturally, they've done it with extremely modest resources. Their payroll is approximately 63 million. And that, of course, is part of the problem.

As improbably successful as they've been, there's a limit to what the Rays can accomplish and it's possible they've already peaked. Like the Oakland A's of a decade ago, the Rays seem to be headed for a dead end.

Yes, they've reached the playoffs three times in the last four years. But the last two times they qualified, they were knocked out in the Division Series -- once after winning two games, and last year, after winning one.

In the last three years, then, they've won a grand total of three post-season games. Aside from the satisfaction of reaching the playoffs over more monied competitors, what have they accomplished?

Most organizations are envious of the pitching the Rays have developed and stockpiled. The Rays can trot out a completely homegrown starting rotation, with every one of the starters under the age of 30. Most teams would give anything to have such a staff.

But as this season and the last two trips to the playoffs have demonstrated, pitching -- even young, affordable, quality pitching -- will only take you so far.

The Rays offense this year is pop-gun style. They ranked 12 (out of 14) in the A.L. in runs scored, 12th in slugging percentage and 10th in homers.

On Tuesday night, the Rays had just one hit going entering the fifth inning for the 30th time this season. Think about that: in about one-fifth of their games, they've had one or no hits almost halfway through the game.

That puts a tremendous strain on the pitching staff. And the defense hasn't helped, either. The Rays rank dead last in fielding percentage and stand to become the first team since 1945 to lead the league in ERA while being last in defense.

The problem? Payroll, of course. And it's not just the putrid support that the Rays get in the Tampa Bay market, though that itself is embarrassing. In the first three games of this homestand, which began with the team nominally still in the playoff chase despite a 1-5 road trip, they've drawn less than 36,000 fans.

Tied into a onerous lease at Tropicana Field, the Rays literally have nowhere to go. There isn't a single logical market to which they could move and there's no sign of a new deal in Tampa, Orlando or anywhere else that will change their fate.

But things don't have to be this bad. Their 2011 payroll of 42 million was much lower than it could have been. The Rays receive tens of millions in revenue sharing from MLB's central fund and tens of millions more from national TV money and the sport's wildly profitable advanced media inititives. Those payments alone, an industry source confirmed, would have more than covered the 2011 payroll -- before the Rays sold a single ticket, or local sponsorship.

The same could be said about this year's payroll: it wasn't absolutely necessary to have former Red Sox castoff and career journeyman Drew Sutton serve as the team's cleanup hitter for a while, as he did earlier this season.

But it seems like the Rays have fallen so in love with their underdog, us-against-the-world mentality that they're more interested in exceeding expectations than they are in winning a championship.

Had the Rays, for instance, invested in a catcher better than Jose Molina to handle their talented staff, perhaps this year would have ended better. Or if they had brought in a legitimate veteran hitter to protect Evan Longoria in the lineup -- and protect against his absence.

Already, there is talk that the Rays might have to move James Shields this winter because they may not be able to afford to retain him. In this regard, too, the Rays are repeating the cycle the Oakland A's went through last decade when their homegrown starters also became cost-prohibitive.

The Rays will finish with somewhere around 87 wins this year, and, in an off-year, that's nothing for which they need to apologize. Red Sox fans would surely happily switch places in the standings right now.

But until a solution to their stadium is found, or failing that, a step-up investment is made by owners, the Rays seem destined to hear lots of "atta-boys," and little else.