9:11 PM CST, February 14, 2012
No. 4 Rays: 27th in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Rangers.
Who is crazier? Joe Maddon or Andrew Friedman?
Or do the two men running baseball's best operation — without question the most efficient — know something that the rest of us do not?
Maddon, who was named the American League's Manager of the Year for the second time in four years, could have had his choice of three highly attractive vacancies — the Cardinals, Red Sox and Cubs — but wouldn't ask out of his contract with the Rays. He reportedly agreed to a three-year extension Tuesday that will keep him with the club through 2015.
Friedman, the neophyte who has proven to be a natural, could have had a Theo Epstein-style contract with the Angels or his hometown Astros if he was willing to abandon owner Stuart Sternberg and team President Matt Silverman, a close friend who had the inspired idea that Friedman's business background would translate to baseball. But he left the Angels' job for Jerry DiPoto and showed absolutely no ego as he spoke about working to make the Rays better.
Did these guys never look around Tropicana Field last October? Management covered up thousands of seats with tarps but still didn't sell out division series games against the Rangers.
Sternberg certainly noticed. He told reporters afterward that if fans in the Tampa Bay area continued their tepid support, MLB would "vaporize" the Rays.
If ever there was a time when Sternberg could lose his management team, this was it. But as 2012 opens, the Rays look stronger than ever, from the front office all the way down.
Their lineup still looks a slugger or two short of teams such as the Rangers, Yankees and Angels, but pitching is power. Some people will pick the Rays to build off an 11-14 record in the playoffs since 2008, winning the World Series this time around.
But would the ultimate championship team sell tickets in baseball's worst stadium, which is planted hard against the highways on the outskirts of downtown St. Petersburg, which itself seems stuck in the 1980s?
Not for long.
The Rays are dead in the water at Tropicana Field, and even St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster knows it. That's why he finally is dropping his cold-war approach to a lease that Vince Naimoli signed as he was paying MLB's expansion franchise price of $130 million in 1995.
Naimoli agreed to a lease that ties the Rays to the Trop through 2027. There was once a thought that fans would come there if the team was strong enough, but that idea has faded since a trip to the 2008 World Series brought an attendance increase only from 26th in the majors to 23rd the following season.
Friedman, Maddon, their textbook staffs and strong starting pitching have kept the Rays competitive, yet they ranked 29th in attendance in 2011, having lost about 4,250 fans per game over two playoff seasons.
Something has to give, and soon.
Foster has shown a willingness to negotiate an early end to the lease, which would allow the Rays to explore a stadium in downtown Tampa or near the intersection of I-4 and I-75, east of Tampa. The Tampa Bay Times' Stephen Nohlgren, who has covered stadium issues in the area since the late John McKay was asked about the expansion Buccaneers' execution (he favored it), made sense when he proposed that the Rays return spring training to the St. Pete waterfront in exchange for the team's mobility.
But does Sternberg have a bigger appetite? What if MLB has decided Florida should be a one-team state and is prepared to play a little shell game, letting the Rays move — Portland, Ore., is the best market but Charlotte, N.C., and Las Vegas are possibilities — while offering Sternberg his choice of moving or transferring his equity to another franchise where he's needed, such as the Mets?
Or for that matter, could contraction be on the agenda at some point in the next few years? Sternberg did say "vaporize," didn't he?
Sternberg's tone during a January meeting to discuss the stadium situation surprised Foster. He says the focus wasn't on the need to replace Tropicana Field but rather a bigger question — whether the Tampa-St. Pete market can support a baseball team along with the NFL's Bucs and the NHL's Lightning.
Really? The fight is no longer about a stadium, it's a market? You wonder what Maddon and Friedman know that they're not saying.
•The Rays have averaged 92 victories the last four seasons, the fourth-best figure in the majors.
•The Rays got those victories with a four-year payroll total of $222 million. The three teams that won more, the Yankees (384), Phillies (382) and Red Sox (369), spent an average of $644 million in payroll over those four years, exposing themselves to greater costs through MLB's luxury tax system.
•The Rays were able to add designated-hitter Luke Scott, catcher Jose Molina, first baseman Carlos Pena and reliever Fernando Rodney without having to trade from their surplus of starting pitchers. Lefty Matt Moore (715 strikeouts over 506 pro innings, seven shutout innings against the Rangers in the 2011 playoffs) joins David Price, James Shields, Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann in a six-deep mix that has intriguing arms Alex Cobb, Alex Torres and Chris Archer in the wings. Niemann or Davis could be traded during spring training.
•Friedman got an oversized return from former Cubs GM Jim Hendry in the Matt Garza trade. ESPN's Keith Law ranks shortstop Hak-Ju Lee as baseball's 12th-best prospect overall and Archer still would be the Cubs' best pitching prospect if they hadn't traded him.
•Converted shortstop Matt Bush, a bust as the first overall pick of the Padres in the 2005 draft, is on the verge of getting to the big leagues as a power reliever.
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