No, you won’t see the Tampa Bay Devil Rays sitting atop the AL East anytime soon but with new ownership in place the team seems to be mending its philosophy and instead of merely playing out a run with rental players, the team looks to be trying to build something.
Last year, the D’Rays payroll for the full team was just $2.6 million more than what Derek Jeter, a single player playing for the New York Yankees, made. The Devil Rays had the lowest payroll in the game at just over $24 million and as you might expect they played like a bargain basement team just like they have since their inception back in 1998.
The Devil Rays haven’t exactly been a franchise of proud tradition, to date their glory days all came in the 2004 season - the only time they’ve managed to win as many as 70 games which coincidentally was the only time they didn’t finish in last place in the AL East (they finished 3.5 games ahead of Toronto). But new ownership may bring new hope to those dwelling in the Tampa area.
A payroll of $40 million dollars in baseball isn’t much these days, in fact it will still rank among the lowest payrolls in the game, but it’s the first step that new ownership has taken and is an increase of 66% over last year’s payroll. It’s allowed general manager Andrew Friedman to start thinking a little longer term than any GM in franchise history.
To date that’s meant working out deals with a number of arbitration eligible players, adding some veteran free agents, trading for players who can help in the future (most notably Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett) and signing deals 2-3 years in length with players like Carlos Pena, Troy Percival and James Shields.
That may not seem like a lot overall, but in Tampa Bay that’s a big deal and just maybe a good start.
The scene in Minnesota is wildly different. The Twins, who found themselves on the wrong side of .500 last year were definitely in alien territory. With a payroll of just over $71 million they ranked 18th in terms of dollars spentin baseball last year. Since 2001 they’ve been one of the great success stories among small to middle market teams, winning the division and heading into the playoffs four times in that span.
Unfortunately for them, market realities have started intruding. The team budget has always been an issue and the turnover of players because of an inability to pay them market rate, or to sign them to long term deals, has become more and more of a factor. Up until recently that wasn’t a big issue - the Twins have had a masterful record of trading away veterans they were bound to lose via free agency for top quality replacements and they possessed excellent farm system to develop them.
But 2008 and 2009 will prove to be tough years for this franchise. Offensive leader Torii Hunter already has walked away via free agency this year and next year ace Johan Santana is set to follow (if the Twins don’t deal him before that). Both players were offered extensions and both turned them down.
Maybe that caused a turn around in thinking in Minnesota, and perhaps the Twins are hoping that showing Santana that a commitment to their future will soften his stance when it comes to contract talks. Offering long term deals involved getting the blessings of the Polhad family (the team owners) to shell out $80 million over six years for first baseman Justin Morneau, and $24 million over three years for outfielder Michael Cuddyer.
This willingness to open their wallets more deeply and to offer long term contracts is a change in the way Minnesota has done business over the last decade and could be a harbinger of change throughout the game. Admittedly these contracts were offered to homegrown talent rather than to free agents, but it is a change in the dynamic, and salary structure in Minnesota.