The Tampa Bay Rays are falling apart before our very eyes.
Andrew Friedman. Gone.
Joe Maddon. Gone.
James Shields. Gone.
David Price. Gone.
Add poor attendance. Add no new stadium deal in sight. Add not a chance of adding top stars to enhance the product. Add a depleted farm system no longer able to churn out homegrown pitchers and position players. Add the death of icon Don Zimmer.
It’s been a tough couple of years for the Rays.
While the fans are supportive, there aren’t enough of them. The Rays have never fully taken advantage of a potential Latino fan base. Twenty percent of the Tampa population is Latino, yet the biggest Latino star they’ve had is Jose Canseco? Remember when Canseco hit 31 homers by the All-Star break in 1999? But that didn’t move the attendance needle, either.
So, something’s got to give.
Owner Stu Sternberg had to put out a statement recently refuting a New York Daily News story that he’s strongly considering moving the team to Montreal.
When you think about it, such a move makes a lot of sense. The Montreal business climate is a lot different than it was when the Expos were there. The Montreal Baseball Project will meet with Major League Baseball soon to discuss a financial plan for a team and a new downtown stadium.
If Sternberg isn’t interested, he should be, though it appears in the next few weeks there might be optimism associated with the Rays at least being able to discuss a new stadium in Tampa, though who knows if even that would help.
The Rays’ statement read, “We are committed to making baseball work in the Tampa Bay region. We will do everything we can to make that happen, and right now things are moving in a productive and positive direction. We have not spoken to Montreal — or any other city, including Tampa — about relocation at any point.”
With a new stadium, the Rays at least would tap into a corporate base where tickets would be eaten up by big companies, which would at least improve the sale of high-priced seats and suites. Maybe that would work, maybe it wouldn’t.
Despite the silliness associated with fans not wanting to go over the bridge to St. Petersburg to watch a baseball game, it is a factor. And there’s no doubt the sporting public in that area is on the other side of the bridge, where they could even tap the Orlando market.
Fact is, I had someone tell me that inside the organization there’s still optimism that Sternberg and new general manager Matt Silverman can still make it work from a baseball point of view.
Lefthander Matt Moore, who missed this season after Tommy John surgery, has been at Tropicana Field every day working out and is eyeing a May return. He would be part of a viable rotation of Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, Jeremy Hellickson, and Chris Archer.
But there is a sense of loss, especially with regard to Maddon. He was the most recognizable sports figure in the greater Tampa area.
He was there for nine years, a fixture, though it was thought that in 2014 some players had begun to tune him out, that some of his antics with theme days had grown tiresome, and it was time for a change, anyway.
What that change is will be interesting.
By midweek, the team is expected to release a list of candidates who will be interviewed for this very important job. The feeling is that if Maddon’s bench coach, Dave Martinez, was going to get the job, he would have gotten it by now.
The Rays loved analytics when Friedman was in charge, and he and Maddon were in lockstep. Will the Rays continue to pursue that type of manager or will they go for a more traditional field general, such as Ron Gardenhire, who was dismissed by the Twins after 13 seasons?
It will be interesting to see if the Rays bring in a manager with a name and some ability to excite the fan base, or an unknown who might become the next Maddon.
There are certainly a lot of sidebars to this story. The great Red Sox/Rays rivalry will take a hit without Maddon to stir the pot. The new manager will have to make more with less. He’ll have such huge shoes to fill.
Meanwhile, the people in Montreal can only sit back and wait to see if someone gets desperate enough to make a big move. The Oakland Athletics’ stadium situation is also fluid.
“We’re trying to be very respectful of the process,” said former major league outfielder Warren Cromartie, who is president of the Montreal Baseball Project. “We have not talked to Stu Sternberg but would certainly be open to it if he called. The biggest thing for us right now is to get our own situation in order so we’re completely ready when the time comes to hit the ground running on whatever situation presents itself to us. I think we have a lot of allies out there, a lot of people who would love to see our team come back to Montreal.”
Montreal will host exhibition games before the start of the season for the second straight year to show the strength of its potential fan base. The Blue Jays and Reds will play after a Blue Jays-Red Sox possibility fell through. Last season for Blue Jays-Mets, Montreal drew more than 96,000 fans for two games at Olympic Stadium.
Dodgers stay course, while Cubs pounce
It’s considered cold and heartless. It’s tough to fire someone just because someone better comes along. In the end, did Theo Epstein do the best thing for the Cubs by firing Rick Renteria and hiring Joe Maddon, and did the Dodgers miss out on an incredible opportunity to obtain Maddon by sticking to their commitment to Don Mattingly?
Only time will tell.
“I think it will be a case of, ‘Why didn’t I do what the Cubs did?’ ” said one baseball executive. “Joe Maddon seems to be the hot manager out there and guys like that aren’t available very often. When Maddon is out there you don’t need a long, drawn-out managerial search. If you can afford him, you hire him. Seems like the Dodgers, Cubs, Phillies, Rangers all could afford him.”
Renteria didn’t deserve this, but he will be paid for the final two years of his contract, and who knows if the Cubs sweetened it to lessen the blow?
When new executives take over, they usually like to assess the situation before making changes. Andrew Friedman walked into a Dodgers empire with a much different financial situation than he left in Tampa Bay, but he inherited all sorts of other issues, such as team chemistry, a crowded outfield, free agency with Hanley Ramirez, that he must try to solve.
He threw his support to Mattingly, much like Epstein had thrown his support to Renteria. It was thought Friedman would reserve the right to change his mind, and would want to do that with his good friend Maddon.
After a Division Series loss to the Cardinals in the playoffs, the feeling was that the Dodgers underachieved given their $230 million payroll.
They reassigned GM Ned Colletti and hired as president of baseball operations Friedman, who is expected to hire a new GM. The name most prominently mentioned is that of Friedman’s good friend, Josh Byrnes.
The difference between the Cubs and the Dodgers is the Cubs are building from the ground up and the Dodgers have something in place that didn’t quite work the way it was supposed to.
The early rap on Mattingly was that he wasn’t keeping up with in-game decisions, that he was a tick slow. That seemed to improve. The other positive about Mattingly is that he managed a lot of high-maintenance players, including Adrian Gonzalez, Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Yasiel Puig. It’s not an easy team to manage.
Friedman will likely weed out some of them, but would Maddon have been able to manage those personalities better than Mattingly? Friedman probably knows the answer, and he may regret that he let an opportunity slip away.
Apropos of nothing
1. Lots of possible maneuverings with the staff in San Diego. We’ll see how that shakes out and whether anyone might be leaving for the Dodgers.
2. The Braves are debating whether they should reload and get ready for their new stadium opening in 2017, or simply augment their team and try to solve the offensive puzzle. Decisions should be made soon on the futures of Jason Heyward, and B.J. and Justin Upton. There may be some interesting Atlanta hitters available.
3. The big job ahead for the Royals is trying to hold on to their players. James Shields is the big name, but it’s unlikely they can re-sign him. Billy Butler is a free agent and likely to go elsewhere. One huge decision might come with Alex Gordon, a free agent after next season. Try to re-sign or deal him?
4. His .344 average and .935 OPS in 39 games and 154 at-bats, and .426 average and 1.162 OPS in three World Series make Pablo Sandoval one of the best postseason players ever. But the Giants’ frustration in committing long term to him is that they haven’t been able to get that in the regular season. Over the last four seasons, Sandoval has seen a steady decrease in OPS similar to that of Dustin Pedroia. In 2011, Sandoval’s OPS was .909. In 2012, it was .789. In 2013, it was .758. In 2014, it dropped again to .739. The Giants will likely come off their three-year max on Sandoval, but it will be interesting how far they go.
5. Still not sold on the Tigers letting Max Scherzer go.
6. Brandon McCarthy’s market is growing.
Updates on nine
1. David Ross, C, free agent — Ross spoke to Red Sox GM Ben Cherington at length late in the week and was told that Cherington wanted to see how the roster shook out before making a commitment to him. What that means is anyone’s guess. The Red Sox need a backup catcher, and why not Ross? It could mean that if they were unable to obtain a lefthanded bat, they would need that lefthanded bat from the catcher position. Ross should get a few calls when free agency begins in earnest on Tuesday.
2. Billy Butler, DH, free agent — Butler is free after the Royals declined their $12 million option. Doesn’t mean he won’t be back, but his market is limited given that he’s a DH and is not coming off the best of years. Wouldn’t be shocking to see the Royals bring him back at a reduced rate. Depending on who the Orioles re-sign or don’t re-sign, they could be one spot (Angels maybe?).
3. Josh Hamilton, LF, Angels — Gary DiSarcina, the Angels’ third base coach, believes Hamilton can rebound and be a force if he can stay healthy. “He’s still a guy who can singlehandily change a game with one swing,” said DiSarcina. “He had the thumb injury, and as someone who had the exact same thing, it takes a full year. Then, he had the ribcage issue. He’s also got to make adjustments at the plate. The way he’s pitched around the league, he rarely gets anything to hit. But he’s still a game-changer. He’s feared. Still an incredible athlete. When he runs around second and goes past me at third, he’s like a thoroughbred.”
4. David Freese, 3B, Angels — It’ll be interesting to see whether the Angels get into the third base market in free agency or whether they go with Freese for another year. Freese can be a free agent after next season, but his 10 homers, 55 RBIs, .704 OPS, and average defense have left his job in jeopardy as he could possibly be trade bait. The Angels also have Gordon Beckham, acquired from the White Sox at the trading deadline, who may take the job.
5. Nori Aoki, RF, free agent — Aoki is likely to leave the Royals and sign elsewhere. He was a nice fit for the Royals and will be a nice fit elsewhere as a good on-base, defensive right fielder. Look for the White Sox to be a team with a lot of interest.
6. Rick Renteria, former manager, Cubs — The Twins and Rays are contemplating interviewing him for their vacant managerial jobs. Renteria would fit the Twins’ situation nicely as they have some big-time Latin players coming up in Miguel Sano and Kennys Vargas. One of the lures for the Cubs a year ago is that Renteria is bilingual and there were a few Latin prospects and major leaguers he could communicate well with.
7. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees — A-Rod was reinstated after the World Series, ending his 162-game suspension. He wants to come back and play third base as often as possible, according to a source close to him. Yankees GM Brian Cashman said a few weeks ago that Rodriguez may also play some first base and DH next season. His hip has likely gotten stronger with a year off.
8. Curtis Granderson, OF, Mets — With Kevin Long aboard as hitting coach and the fences coming in at Citi Field, the hope is that Granderson will get back to the form he had under Long with the Yankees. Long understood certain triggers in the swing of Granderson, who hit 41 and 43 homers in 2011 and ’12 with the Yankees. Granderson also had a subpar first year with the Yankees, hitting 24 homers in 2010. He was injured this past season but managed 20 homers with the Mets.
9. Nelson Cruz, DH/OF, free agent — The Orioles’ commitment to winning will be tested by Cruz’s free agency. If they can’t compete for a guy who was arguably their MVP, you have to be critical of ownership, which did step up to get J.J. Hardy’s deal done in the middle of the playoffs. Attendance is up, TV money is coming in. No excuses.
From the Bill Chuck files — “Jonny Gomes is 6 for 8 against Madison Bumgarner in his career.” . . . Also, “Over the last three seasons, Hanley Ramirez has 387 hits and 205 runs, and Anthony Rizzo has 387 hits and 204 runs.” . . . And, “The only batter with at least 400 at-bats and fewer than 100 strikeouts in each of the last 10 seasons is Robinson Cano.” . . . And finally, “Ian Kinsler led the majors with 80 popups.” . . . Happy birthday, Tommy Layne (30), Orlando Cabrera (40), Sam Horn (51), Willie McGee (56), and Greg Harris (59).firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.