Maybe We Should Vaporize Conventional Thinking

I was going to duck Stu Sternberg’s recent comments about the state of the organization but, several folks have asked for my opinion both in the comments and by email so, I am happy to at least think about what Stu said rather than brushing it aside.

Let me start by saying that I am not angry at Stu and I don’t think you should be either.

Stu made his comments in the clubhouse after an elimination game. He was upset just like the rest of us. When I get mad at the Rays after a frustrating loss, I say silly things too. Only, when I say them, it is just my wife that hears them. She makes fun of me (“right, because now you don’t think Zobrist can play”), I take it back, the world goes on. I think it is a natural reaction. The difference between Stu and me (in this single scenario, because there are a lot of other differences, for example, I am much better looking) is that my wife doesn’t work for a cable news network. In 2011, public figures do not have the luxury of speaking extemporaneously. So, I’ll give him some rope and chalk the tone of the comments up to his frustration with the outcome of the game.

Second — and get ready because this is a bitter pill — we shouldn’t be angry at him because, in a lot of ways, he’s right. The Rays situation is currently unworkable.

There are a lot of legitimate reasons that we are not selling out the Trop. We have discussed them all at length and none of them have to do with fan loyalty. I think this club has some of the most loyal fans in the game and I have been consistently impressed by the high level of conversation we’ve had here this summer. But, we have to be honest and at least admit that there is a problem for the Rays economically, regardless of the cause. No business can function on declining revenue and that is just what the Rays are being asked to do. Maybe Stu made his point inartfully. (I have to believe he’d like another shot at it without the emotion of a season ending loss). But his point is solid.

Think about it. If we cannot get people to the Trop because of the economy, and its location, and the infancy of the club, and there is no sign of an economic revival, or a new ballpark, or deep club loyalty in the near future, then the situation is unworkable. The problems, regardless of their cause, do not seem to have good solutions. Yes, we are unlucky that such a remarkable run of success hit right in the middle of the worst American economy of our lives. But it is not unreasonable for Stu, as a business owner, to be frustrated by that reality. More importantly, despite what you might read in the newspapers, Stu doesn’t have any moral or civic obligation to keep funding a financially unworkable endeavor.

I think the sting of all this comes from Stu’s tone. He’s a successful guy that saw what he thought to be low-hanging fruit. He saw a team in a solid market with a poor public image. Of course some investment in the ballpark, investment in the community, investment in the fans, and investment in the on-field product would automatically equal a sold-out house every night. He did his end, but didn’t get the result he expected. That’s frustrating and he lashed out.

In the end, though, I think Stu and his team missed the bigger picture. It’s not baseball that can’t work in Tampa Bay. It’s the current Major League Baseball business model that can’t work.

We love the game. But, in a sprawling community that is filled with active, outdoor-oriented people, you can’t build your revenue model on corporate sales (we have no Fortune 500 headquarters), television revenue, and ticket revenue. You can’t just take the business plan for the Yankees, Red Sox, or Cubs, cross out the names and write in your own. Those markets are fundamentally different.

I think this has been the only real failure of the Stu era. For all his creativity in marketing, public relations, and baseball operations, he has been decidedly conventional in his business operations.

For example, I read somewhere that the Rays season-ticket base is about 20%-30% lower than most other teams (I can’t find the article so these numbers are coming from memory…I’ll update them if you can find it). That shortage matches, almost exactly, the percentage of season tickets that other teams sell to big corporations in their markets. Stu had to know that Tampa is the biggest American city without a Fortune 500 headquarters when he bought the team. But no one seems to be asking why he didn’t account for that in his plan. Why is he running the team as though there is population density around the park and corporate money in the system?

If we’re going to save this thing, it’s time for someone in the Rays business office to have a Moneyball idea about business modeling, rather than the bullpen. Perhaps that idea won’t get Brad Pitt to play you in a movie, but it might allow our grandchildren to see Major League Baseball in their community.

Did I invent a time machine?

My pre-coffee brain had a small freak-out session this morning while I was reading my morning newspaper. First, I saw a story about The Tampa Big Lebowski Festival and then a story about Contraction in Major League

Ken: “I am the walrus? I am the walrus Walter?”

Baseball. Any reasonably-sleep-deprived brain would understand those occurrences to mean that my house had somehow been sucked back to the late 1990s through some cosmic wormhole. Right?

I looked and looked and, when I realized there were no references to Monica Lewinsky anywhere in the front section, I was appeased that it was still 2011.

This contraction rumor, spurred by another half-hearted column from Ken Rosenthal, is apparently spreading.

Call me a skeptic but, I think it is interesting that the two teams “rumored” to be candidates for contraction are the only two teams in Major League Baseball stuck in bad ballparks. That can’t be a coincidence, right?

Just out of curiosity, Ken, remind me again which two franchises Bud targeted for contraction last time. Minnesota and Montreal you say? How’d that work out? They both got brand new ballparks? Hmm. Interesting, no?

Doesn’t it stand to reason that Major League Baseball might have dusted off that old playbook again in the hopes that it can spur Oakland and Tampa Bay to dedicate otherwise scarce public resources to a new ballyard? What’s that? You didn’t bother to answer because you don’t want to cut off your pipeline of leaked stories? Fair enough.

Major League Baseball is the only major professional sports league not currently facing a labor showdown. Why on earth would MLB waste its opportunity to capitalize on all the hate headed toward the NFL and NBA by contracting teams? Even Bud is smart enough to know that this isn’t the time for bad press or bad stories. No one is getting contracted. Book it.

Welcome to the fraternity Ken. In honor of this weekend’s Lebowski festival, I rebuke you in the immortal words of Walter Sobchak “[Ken] you are like a child that walks into the middle of a movie and wants to know what is going on.”

The Skipper Speaks

Last night I attended an event graciously hosted by Homebanc and the guest of honor was Rays’ skipper Joe Maddon who took some questions from the crowd.

Incidentally, Joe Maddon is, without a doubt, the nicest man in baseball. He spoke to everyone in the room and answered every question he was asked without hesitation, caveat, or annoyance.

Joe shared three insights that bear repeating:

1. Despite his baseball-youth, Reid Brignac is mentally ready for a full-time big league gig. Maddon told a story from Brignac’s first call-up in 2008 in New York (Baseball Reference says it was July 9, 2008). Joe came to the mound late in the game to put on a defensive play and Brignac was laughing, chewing his gum, and taking in the scene totally unfazed by the raucous Yankee Stadium crowd. In Joe’s mind, that showed the Brignac believed he was ready and that confidence will translate into success in 2010.

2. Joe can’t decide whether to hit Manny behind Longo, to provide protection, or in front of Longo, because Manny’s OPS is second in all of baseball to Pujols.

3. LENIGAN — THIS ONE’S FOR YOU. Matt Joyce will ultimately be an everyday outfielder but, not on opening day. Maddon intends to ease him in against LHP by using him against reverse-split lefties (lefties that are harder on right-handed hitters than they are on left-handed hitters). In Maddon’s view, reverse-split lefties (particularly lefties that use a high-arm angle and rely heavily on a cutter — like Jon Lester, who Maddon specifically identified) give Joyce the opportunity to transfer his success against righties and Maddon hopes that success against reverse-split lefties will ultimately give Joyce confidence against more traditional lefties.

It’s just business.

I swear that I intended for yesterday’s post on attendance to be my last word on the issue so that this space could re-focus itself on the ballclub.

But, this story just won’t die, thanks in part to David Price and Evan Longoria.

I worked up quite an angry sweat on the treadmill this morning while reading the opinions of Price and Longo. I was prepared to point out the ignorance of athletes demanding blind loyalty from fans without pledging their loyalty to the fans in return. I was even prepared to promise to buy season tickets just as soon as Price and Longo signed lifetime contracts with the Rays whose salary was gauged to economic conditions and not on-field performance.

But, the more I thought about it, the more my anger abated. Longoria and Price are children. Not children in age (although they are both young) but children in life experience. They have been pampered through an athlete-centric culture that has protected them from the realities of the outside world, in particular the business world.

This is not a critique of athlete-worship. I am merely pointing out that we insulate our athletes so they keep the bright-eyed innocence of children. All they have to think about is the game. That is part of the reason we turn to sports for entertainment. It is an escape from reality.

That escape, however, can rear its ugly head when the folks living inside the bubble attempt to analyze things outside the white lines. (See Schilling, Curt).

The fact of the matter is, neither Longoria nor Price have any reason to know the reality of sports business. They cannot comprehend that fans won’t come to the yard to see them play because they only equate on-field performance with attendance. I would guess that neither Longoria nor Price has bought a ticket to anything. For that matter, I’d bet that neither Longoria nor Price has ever sold anything.

Their complaints, of course, are naive. It is the equivalent of a restaurant complaining that customers are not filling tables even though the cook has been making great food. Eating out, like going to the ballgame, is not a necessity. Companies in the entertainment world need to find the right incentives to convince consumers to spend money they do not otherwise have to spend. The Rays are currently failing at this.

Instead of blaming management for poor business strategy, or looking to factors outside anyone’s control — like the economy, the children in the clubhouse blame the customers. That is understandable. Price, Longoria, and the rest of the Rays derive a significant portion of their own self-worth from the blind adoration of fans. Of course it feels personal to them. Someone needs to take them aside and explain, it’s not personal, it’s just business.

I’m so Excited

The Sweet Spot is running its first full Spring Training preview item today that will include a short paragraph on the player each blogger is most excited to see in 2012. Do you see my dilemma? How can you possibly pick just one player on this roster to be excited about?

I ultimately went with Joe because my non-sexual crush on him burst into an all out affair this week after he signed his extension and held one of the greatest open interviews in the history of sports yesterday on 620 WDAE. (During the interview I emailed my former boss the following “You already know this, but Joe’s a stud.”) If I write about Joe again, this blog is going to turn into his CV so, I’ll save the remaining thoughts I have about the skipper for another day.

I grappled with this decision for several days before writing the blurb I ultimately used. (I found out hours later about this ridiculous DJ Kitty mascot and immediately reconsidered making the person in charge of hiring and firing in the marketing department the player I was most excited to watch).

Here are the options I am excited about that were left on the proverbial cutting room floor:

  • Sean Rodriguez: I love this guy. Love him. There is something about him that gives you that “old ballplayer vibe.” I know, I know, that is not scientific in the least but, I sense it about SRod (He REALLY REALLY needs a better nickname too). Maybe it’s because he grew up in the game. Maybe it’s because he looks like he wears eye black to bed. But he just reeks of a guy that is going to play this game for 25 years. So, I am excited to see if this is the year he puts it together.
  • Matt Joyce: Sure we added Luke Scott and Carlos Pena and Jeff Keppinger. Sure we have an entire season of Desmond Jennings. Sure BJ will be in a contract year. None of that will matter for the Rays offense if Matt Joyce backslides. Call me an optimist, but I don’t think he will. I think Joe has a good book on Joyce and will continue to use him in situations where he can succeed. Besides, looking through our lineup, Matt is going to get a ton of good pitches.
  • Kyle Farnsworth: He was solid last year. And, if memory serves, had been solid the year before in Kansas City. So, maybe my unease isn’t justified. But who can forget the gas can that used his name and pitched for the Yankees and Cubs? If he reverts to that Farnsworth, we are going to have big matchup problems in the late innings.

Who’d I miss? (Besides the obvious. I mean, we’re all excited to see Evan Longoria walk from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. We’re all excited to see Matt Moore spin that breaking ball up there. We’re all excited to see BJ go back on a ball over his head.)

There has to be Mo[o]re to this deal.

See what I did there? “Moore” to this deal? I shoulda been in advertising. If Sterling Cooper were real, and I was alive 50 years ago, I’d be kicking Paul Kinsey’s tail up-and-down the office with my zingers. Right?

I digress.

I have been pondering Matt Moore’s 8-year deal for several days and there is something about it that isn’t quite right. Sure, Moore is a phenomenal talent. Sure, the Rays and Moore have a joint interest in sharing the risk of Moore’s future. So, it makes sense that everyone just assumes this fits the Rays business model of locking up young talent long-term at below-market prices. Predictably, all the analysis has put Moore right in line behind James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, and Wade Davis.

But this deal is different.

Shields/CC/Kazmir, and to a lesser extent Davis, were established Major League entities when they signed their extensions. Longoria had only played 6 games in the big leagues but, those 6 games came after a long stint at AAA that pushed back his arbitration clock an additional year. None of that is true for Moore. In fact, he doesn’t even have any significant time in AAA.

But, experience isn’t what makes the Moore deal unique, it’s the timing. It makes no sense. Why do this deal in December rather than, say, March or May?

Think about it. Everyone and their mother knows that the Rays are likely to trade a pitcher this offseason. There are six starting pitchers for five spots (Shields, Price, Hellickson, Davis, Niemann, Moore). Friedman has to deny that he is going to trade a starter to ensure that any market exists for the starter he has to trade. He has to drive down supply by convincing the league that he’ll keep all six. (At some point, there was some discussion of converting one of the six to a closer role but, that ended when we brought back Kyle Farnsworth.)

Moore was the x-factor keeping the trade demand for Niemann/Davis artificially high. There was a legitimate reason to start Moore in AAA despite his 2010 success. A team might be inclined to buy Niemann/Davis at a fair or inflated price if they really believed Moore would be in AAA. This deal ended Moore’s flexibility right in the heat of the hot stove season. By signing this deal, Moore is guaranteed a 2011 roster/rotation spot. That necessarily drives down the trade price of Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann, right? If another GM knows we HAVE to move or release a pitcher, instead of just wanting to move one, he’s going to pay less. Still with me?

That’s why a December announcement is so bizarre. The Rays absolutely undermined the market for their assets by increasing supply. (and, based on this morning’s paper, it was the Rays, not Moore, that opened the conversation) That is so non-Extra-2% it’s crazy. They have to have thought of this problem. So why do it when they could have accomplished the exact same long-term end with Moore in March?

My first thought was the stadium issue. Perhaps the Rays were hoping to combat some negative storyline that has been developing about their failure to invest in the future of the team. Perhaps the Moore extension would be seen as “hey, we’re in this for the long-haul, are you [local government official]?” But, that can’t be it because there hasn’t been a significant stadium story since October and, no one is talking about baseball stadiums in December.

That leads me to one, crazy, wildly speculative conclusion. Pardon me for a moment while I put on my tin-foil hat to keep the government from reading my thoughts. The Rays didn’t care about the market-price for Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann. They announced this deal to drive UP the trade price of David Price.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the Rays should trade David Price. In my mind, he could be the ultimate “sell-high” candidate at this point. He really hasn’t developed a second pitch and, it seems like teams are onto his fastball. Also, his delivery reminds me a lot of Scott Kazmir, which makes me worry about injuries in a way that I do not worry about Shields/Hellickson/Moore/Davis.

With Moore, a potential front-of-the-rotation guy, locked up until my toddlers are in Middle Schoool, the Rays can have an open discussion about Price’s trade value without generating a torch-and-pitchfork market bubble. They have to know that trading David Price will be unpopular, even if it makes baseball sense. (Hell, I am afraid that the guy on the sidewalk in front of my house is going to throw a bring at me for even typing this.) But, locking up their number 1 (Shields) and numbers 1a and 1b (Hellickson and Moore) blunts the impact of Price’s departure. Having Moore in the tent opens the door for Friedman to shift the conversation from Davis/Niemann to Price when other GMs call. Is this a totally insane discussion?

I have no idea what is going to happen. And I am open to any other ideas for an 8-year December extension for a AA starting pitcher. Seriously. Tell me what you think is going on. Because I feel like I am taking crazy pills.

One rule, though. When you comment below. Please begin your comment with a disclaimer warning us whether or not we need our tin-foil hat before reading. After all, we don’t want the government to know our secrets. Right? [I fear I have said too much already].

This has to be the bottom. Has to be.

Yesterday, commenter Travis asked when the Rays are going to have an upswing. And, let’s be honest, that is the question hanging over all our heads because we all know (hope?) that this team isn’t a 16-win team and are anxiously awaiting the day when they stop playing like one.

After following my wife’s direction to stay positive all weekend (Friday Night: “You are the biggest pessimist. I told you not to give up.”; Sunday Afternoon after I finished the yard: “Just don’t ask. They’ll turn it around while you get cleaned up.”) I have basically propped up my sanity on the assumption that last year’s team hit long offensive dry spells on its way to scoring 802 runs, third best total in the American League. So I looked it up and, well, it isn’t good news.

For all of the hand-wringing about last season’s “offense,” the Rays hung up a lot of crooked numbers in 2010. While the 2010 Rays certainly had some peaks and valleys, the lows were rarely this low and were never this long. The 2010 Rays scored 1 or fewer runs a total of 25 times in 2010 (not counting Cliff Lee in the ALDS which, according to my memory, never actually happened). The 2011 Rays already have 1/5th of that total locked up. More importantly, the 2010 Rays spread those stink bombs around. They had only three 5-game stretches in which they 1 or fewer runs 3 or more times (May 21-25, June 20-24, Aug. 4-8). But, in 2 of those 5-game spans, the Rays broke up the 1-run games with double-digit totals. In fact, the 2010 Rays were held to 2 or fewer runs 37 times but followed 18 of those 37 stink bombs (48.6%) with a 5+ run performance.

That means that the first 10 games of 2011 are worse than anything we saw in 2010. As Travis pointed out, the Rays’ pitchers have been able to keep most of these games close (I don’t have the energy or sanity to worry about the offense, Jeff Niemann, AND Jake McGee so, Niemann and McGee get lumped in with the success of their teammates just for my own personal well-being) but 19 runs just isn’t going to cut it in the American League.

I don’t know if this team has another 5+ run breakout in it but, if it does, this series in Boston would be a good place to use it. The Red Sox look to be fully recovered from their slow start and things could get ugly fast in Fenway if the Rays don’t get things right.

The Concession Stand

Today is the day we have been waiting for since October. The first day of spring.

I was all primed to open camp with a post on starting pitching, or maybe on the shortstop battle. I am also finalizing a personal Fan-ifesto that I am going to live by during the 2012 campaign.

But I am going to set all that aside. The baseball writing makes more sense after Andrew and Joe sit with the press today in Port Charlotte, and I can come back to the list of guys in the best shape of their career. Consider me distracted by Brian Cashman’s comments yesterday that the Yankees “conceded” the AL East in 2010 in an effort to line up for the playoffs.

Lets first dispose of the absurdity of the statement. To say the Yankees “conceded” the division is akin to saying they intentionally lost it. I know the talking heads love to evaluate who is trying to win and who isn’t. But, that is just filler. In my experience, you only get a locker in a big league clubhouse if you try to win every night. There is simply not a player or a manager anywhere in the big leagues that isn’t trying to win every pitch. To say the contrary is a brazen excuse for failure.

Take it a step further. Imagine Brian Cashman, coming in a 4’6″ and a whopping 100 lbs, standing in Joe Girardi’s office and telling him ‘Joe, listen, lay this one down. It’s just a t-shirt. Besides, we don’t want to play Texas in the first round because you can’t beat Texas. Let Tampa Bay have those guys.’ Would Cashman still be capable of speaking two years later? Probably not.

Also, let’s put aside the idea that the Yankees don’t care about division titles or wild card titles. (a comment every Yankee fan loves to make — ‘the only thing that matters in New York is a World Series title.’). I don’t even have to write on this point:

Nice T-shirts fellas. But what’s with the champagne? Your GM says the division title is just a t-shirt. Wait, I get it. The 2010 AL East title is just a t-shirt. But, 2011? Now that is a reason to celebrate. My bad.

Putting aside the silly logic undermining Cash’s point, there is a larger issue to consider here. Why is Cash talking about us? Is 2010 really the best example he has of the way the Wild Card rules would effect MLB? Or, is he trying to hide his obvious worry? Look, New York has a good team. Boston has a great team. But everyone is picking us. That is both exciting and terrifying. But maybe Cash looks at his offseason, looks at his starting rotation, and, before heading back out to the corner to beg someone to take AJ Burnett, realizes that his worry about what is developing in Tampa Bay is showing.

So, what does he do to hide his worry? He reverts to middle school Cashman. I don’t know Cashman from Adam but, I think we can all agree that plenty of girls said no when a young Cashman was looking for a date to the school dance. Right? Can’t you hear 13-year-old Cash telling his buddies buddy local librarian ‘yeah, I don’t really want to go to the dance anyway. I basically conceded that when I bought Star Wars on VHS and planned a movie night.’

Sorry Cash. I don’t buy it. If the division title is such a small deal, then announce right now that you are conceding it and setting yourself up for the postseason. What’s that? You’ll see how it goes in 2012 before announcing your concession? That’s what I thought.


Nothing left but a nickname

Yesterday’s Manny-Johnny event was more Dean Martin roast than press conference. Everyone is happy, Joe Maddon still doesn’t know what he is going to do with the lineup — but Manny wants to hit leadoff because he had 5 triples in 1998 — and everyone thinks the Rays can repeat as AL East Champions.

There is simply nothing left to say about the addition of Manny and Damon until they get to Port Charlotte and start, you know, playing baseball. But, this time of year nothing else is going on so, let’s talk about Manny and Damon some more.

The top item on the list is a nickname. What do you think? RJ Anderson suggested DaManny back when the story first broke. Michael Webber has been using MannysBay in his Twitter feed.

I am lukewarm on both. We need something better. What do you got?

Not Everything Needs an Explanation

I couldn’t sleep. Could you?

I still cannot process what just happened. The chain of events between 7-0 in the bottom of the 8th (I’ll admit it, I started to channel surf, I couldn’t watch our boys end like that) to the Wild Card (I was following Baltimore-Boston through text messages from my dad) is too jarring.

The natural instinct of professional writers everywhere will be to breakdown how it happened. Or, they will breakdown what it means. That is what the media does and, in the era of 24 hour news, we expect instant history. But, if you came here this morning looking for my take on the historical significance of the 2011 Wild Card race, you are going to be disappointed. I don’t think we will fully understand September 28-29, 2011 for a very long time. It is a singular event. It simply cannot be canned and shipped in just a few hours.

Maybe the only people that know what we are feeling at the moment are fans of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951.

Rather than analyzing the Rays return from the dead (I need to go back and count how many lives these cats have, but I think it is many more than 9) lets just enjoy the fact that it occurred. We have our entire lives to argue about context (in this scenario “argue about context” can be interpreted to mean “taunt Boston fans”).

In the meantime, we need to do four things:

1) We need a name for the Wild Card race we just witnessed;

2) We need a name for the 8th/9th inning rally we just witnessed;

3) We need a name for Johnson’s tying bomb; and

4) We need a name for Longo’s walkoff bomb.