First Pitch: Rays mediocrity will last without financial help

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First Pitch: Rays mediocrity will last without financial help

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.

Dombrowski defends John Farrell after group strategy meeting on Monday

Dombrowski defends John Farrell after group strategy meeting on Monday

 

The Red Sox braintrust had a meeting on Monday's off-day to strategize with a 22-21 team that's underperforming and in third place.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told NESN's Tom Caron on the Sox pre-game show that he was part of a meeting with Farrell, assistant general managers Eddie Romero and Brian O'Halloran and vice president of baseball research and development Zack Scott.

"We sat down yesterday for over a couple hours," Dombrowski told Caron. "I [had] already talked to some of our scouts and just kind of [went] over our club to try to get it to fit together a little bit. Because some of those things, the injuries, and even the guys that are playing, like in Hanley [Ramirez's] case, it does affect what you’re trying to do. So normally at this time of year, I think you have a better pulse [of the team]. But I think we need a little bit more time. We just really haven’t flowed as a club. We haven’t played as well as I think we’re capable of and I think we need to give ourselves that opportunity."

Asked about Farrell's job security, Dombrowski defended a manager whose 2018 option was picked up over the winter.

"Well, we won a divisional crown last year," Dombrowski said. "He managed very well for us at the time. I think that John, as well as everybody else, is frustrated by our performance and that we haven’t taken off, but we’re not buried either. I mean, we’re four games out of first place and we really haven’t been in a flow. And when you look at it, it’s like, OK, last week Thursday we won two great games in St. Louis. I wasn’t with the team, I was in Salem. 

"Well I looked at the match-up on Thursday, and I’m thinking, well if [Sonny] Gray throws like he’s capable, I’m not sure what we’re going to get out of [Hector] Velazquez at that particular time. And of course, Velazquez didn’t have a very good outing. So you lose that ball game. Is that John’s fault? I can’t put that on John. 

"Friday night, you have Chris Sale, he threw the ball very well. Well the play that Trevor Plouffe made on Hanley Ramirez, I don’t know if he’s made a play like that all year long. Mookie Betts, in the ninth inning gets a line drive right at the third baseman. Well you have a chance to score five or six runs, didn’t happen. No excuses, but it’s one of those where I think to pin those things on John Farrell are just not fair. I think we’re in a position where he’s managed well, he’s managed divisional champions. I think we’re in a position, we have a good club. We just need to get in a better flow of things."

Dombrowski felt the Sox were harder to evaluate a quarter into the season than most teams would be.

"Because the reality is when you look at our ballclub, it really hasn’t been together at all at any point during the year for me," he said. "So I think when you look at it, you say OK, well, we need to improve our fourth and fifth starters. Well, David Price comes back next week — we think he’ll be back next week. So that’s a pretty big addition, that’s like making a major trade. 

"I still think Drew Pomeranz, although he has scuffled at times, should be a fourth-, fifth-type starter on a good club. … We need to straighten him out. I think he’s capable of doing that. When you talk about bullpen, our bullpen’s been good but I still think we’re going to get Carson Smith in a short time period, so that’s another addition that we have.

"Third base, you know has been a hole for us where Pablo Sandoval could be back very soon. I’m not sure where Brock Holt fits into that whole equation. So we’re really on our fifth third baseman right now when you look at it. Pablo is there, and then Brock Holt was there. Marco Hernandez is going to have surgery, we’re going to miss him for the rest of the year. Josh Rutledge has been over there."

Holt, out with vertigo, and the Red Sox are regrouping. Holt's exhausted the 20 days permitted for a minor league rehab stint, and is heading to Pittsburgh to meet concussion expert Micky Collins. Another rehab stint figures to follow eventually, barring a change in diagnosis.

Hernandez is to have surgery on his left shoulder Friday, which likely ends his season.

Hanley Ramirez can still be the DH, but his sore shoulders have relegated him to only that position, not first base. That's part of the reason Sam Travis was added to the roster Tuesday.

"There’s a couple reasons behind it," Dombrowski said of Travis' call-up.  "We’re in a position where we have a roster spot for a positional player. Secondly, we’ve talked about giving Mitch [Moreland] a little bit of a blow on his feet at times, to not play too many games. And we faced a left hand pitcher tomorrow [in the Rangers' Martin Perez]. He’s been hitting the ball well, Sam has. 

"We’re trying to sit [Moreland] a little bit vs. the left-handed pitching. Even though he’s done OK, we just don’t want him to get too tired as the year goes on. And the reality is, originally that was going to be Hanley [playing first base vs. lefties]. Well, Hanley’s not available to do that now, so we needed to make an adjustment ourself on how to do that. And with the extra roster spot, Pawtucket right down the road, we figure it’s a good chance to give him that opportunity. 

"In Hanley’s case, not playing first base, people don’t realize at times how much that changes the mix of your club. Because at some time, we are going to have Chris Young get at-bats and DH at that point."

Napoli: Red Sox and his agent only had 'small talk' about reunion

Napoli: Red Sox and his agent only had 'small talk' about reunion

BOSTON -- Of course, the Rangers' Mike Napoli didn't mind the idea of replacing David Ortiz. He loved playing in Boston.

There just was never much chatter that way last offseason, when Napoli was a free agent after his Indians took the Cubs to seven games in the World Series.

"I think my agent had maybe a small talk or something [with the Red Sox], but I don't think it ever would have happened," Napoli said Tuesday afternoon as he returned to Fenway Park with Texas. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I would have loved to come back. But, I mean, it all worked out. I'm glad to be where I'm at now. Because I knew everybody here [with the Rangers]. I didn't have to start over again."

Napoli played with the Rangers in 2011 and '12, and was traded by the Sox to Texas for the last few months of the 2015 season.

He was hopeful the Sox -- his team from 2013 to midseason 2015 -- would be among the clubs to come calling last winter.

"Oh, yeah," he said.

But he wasn't optimistic it was going to happen. And it didn't.

"To be honest with you . . . Cleveland was my first priority," he said. "I just had a World Series run [with the Indians] and we didn't win it. And then Texas was there [in the bidding, along with] Minnesota."

The Rangers wound up giving Napoli, 35, a one-year deal for 8.5 million with an $11 million club option for next season or a $2.5 million buyout. He's hitting just .188 entering Tuesday, a subpar figure, but has 10 home runs.

"We started off pretty slow, but winning 10 straight will help," Napoli said of the Rangers' recent tear. "[Winning] 11 of 12, we've been playing better. I think we kind of lost track of who we are. We got some guys struggling, still trying to find themselves and kind of got away from doing it together as a team, but we got back to doing that. It's been going pretty well."

Part of the World Series championship team of four years ago, Napoli loved being in Boston in 2013, and he enjoys being back now.

"What we were able to do in 2013, obviously, it's something I'l never forget and something I cherish," Napoli said. "I love coming back here to play."

When it was noted there's been so much turmoil since Napoli left -- the talk of Tuesday was manager John Farrell's job security -- he was unsurprised.

"You got to have thick skin to play here," Napoli said. "You're expected to win a championship every single year. But that's what I loved about playing here, is that people were on you. For me, I loved it. A lot of people probably couldn't do it.

"I knew it in my heart that I went out there and I played as hard as I possibly could every single time . . . I know you're not going to be perfect and live up to everyone."