After a very impressive season in which they came within just two wins of a championship, the Tampa Bay Rays are reportedly spending this offseason looking to improve their roster in the most natural, obvious way possible: by getting rid of their players who actually make money.
According to MLB.com reporter Mark Feinsand, the Rays have told other MLB front offices that they’d be down to trade former Cy Young winner Blake Snell, whose three years and $39 million remaining on his contract—largely seen as a bargain when it was signed—make him their biggest liability. Feinsand says that Snell is for sale because “given the financial losses the Rays endured during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, trading the 27-year-old represents the club’s best chance to create some much-needed flexibility.”
But dealing their maybe-soon-to-be-former ace is far from the only area in which the Rays—who spent less money on ballplayers than any team besides the Orioles and Pirates last year—are looking to achieve that mythical “flexibility.” (What an odd euphemism for cost-cutting.) The team declined a reasonable one-year option on a crucial contributor from last year’s postseason run in starter Charlie Morton, allowing him to instead sign a one-year, $15 million deal with the Braves this morning. They also cut loose two other players who were in their top six highest earners in 2020, Mike Zunino and Hunter Renfroe (who, in fairness to management, are both Mendoza-line hitters).
But that’s not all. Feinsand’s report name-checks a whopping two additional players besides Snell who are “making significant money” and are therefore candidates for relocation. One is Kevin Kiermaier, an outfielder with a first-class glove who’s earning $23.5 million over the next two years, and the other is Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who made his American debut last season and is due a staggering $7 million in the upcoming final year of his contract. Kiermaier is mentioned as a guy who could land somewhere as a consolation prize for whoever misses out on George Springer, while Snell is being whispered in the same sentences as the Mariners thanks to their deep farm system, hometown connection, and Jerry Dipoto’s passion for making trades.
But, uh, what does this do, exactly? How do any of these rumored or actual moves help the Rays improve as a team and return to the World Series for the second straight year. How does dealing or cutting ties with—ah, I’ll stop playing dumb. These attempts at “payroll flexibility” pretty straightforwardly do not do shit to better the on-field product. They transparently serve to put more money in Stuart Sternberg’s pockets as he continues to claim that he’s too poor to properly run a baseball team (in which case he should sell the franchise).
However, the Rays aren’t quite going to be making a return trip to Tank City, even if all their penny-pinching dream moves come true. They still have a bundle of good players locked into below-market paychecks, including Randy Arozarena and Brandon Lowe, and their business model is specifically designed to make the most of baseball’s ever-expanding playoff bracket, which if the owners get their way will feature 16 teams again in 2021. The Rays, then, merely have to be average if they want to make the postseason and claim a successful year, and from there it’s a lot of luck that determines whether or not they’ll stick around. It won’t be fun. It won’t be exciting. And it’s a real shame if ownership lets a charismatic contender erode away over a few million dollars. But it’s clearly the most efficient way to field a baseball team in 2021. Whatever that means.