Sometimes in baseball, we need to look down, not up. We need to look south, not north. We need to turn our gaze away from the usual suspects — the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, the … aw, you know who we mean.
So today, let’s stare at the basement.
We know there’s hope for the teams that just finished in first place. But is there hope for the teams that just finished in last place?
We’ve spent the past week asking that question to people all over baseball, especially in the wake of this sport’s new labor deal. We exempted the Atlanta Braves, a team moving into a new ballpark. We also exempted the Minnesota Twins, a franchise that just installed what is essentially a whole new group at the top of its baseball operations department.
But that still left four fascinating last-place teams with lots of questions about where they’re going, how they’ll get there and how the new labor agreement could affect them (or not). Those teams would be the Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays and Cincinnati Reds. You’ve heard of them, right?
So let’s buckle them all into our hot seat and hook them up to our cool new gizmo — the Hope Meter. Do they have hope on the field? Do they have hope off the field? It’s time to answer those questions, in order of impact on the franchise, for all four teams.
Hope Meter off the field: 3 (out of 10)
We’re guessing you haven’t read the fine print in the labor deal. So you should know there’s something amazing in it: The A’s had a giant target spray-painted all over their crumbling stadium.
For years now, they’ve been surviving by cashing enormous revenue-sharing checks, even though they play in the sixth-largest TV market in America. But not for long.
It’s incredibly rare for any labor agreement to single out one team. But it happened in this agreement. The A’s will lose 25 percent of their revenue-sharing money next year, 50 percent in 2018, 75 percent in 2019 and all of it after that.
Why? Because everyone in baseball clearly thought it was time to send them a message: Build. That. Stadium. Already. Or else!
Too many folks in the game obviously saw the A’s as a team that felt no pressure to get out of its current rut. So only two things can happen now: (1) They make a deal to build a ballpark somewhere in Oakland, with Jack London Square or the Coliseum area as the likely sites; or (2) they sell the team — and someone else tackles this mess.
But no matter which of those two winds up happening, this is a franchise with very little hope of generating a whole lot of revenue in the short term. And that’s not good.
Hope Meter on the field: 3
Let’s just say losing has never been Billy Beane’s favorite thing. So the A’s have never taken a ride down Tanking Trail. They’ve always tried to figure out some way to compete. And there’s a book and a major motion picture with more details, if you’re interested.
But executive vice president Beane and general manager David Forst now find themselves in a place unlike any they’ve ever been. Since losing the 2014 wild-card game, the A’s are 51 games under .500. They’re coming off back-to-back last-place finishes for the first time since 1997-98. And Keith Law rates their system as being so thin that they could be three to four years from restocking.
They’ve had very little luck in trying to sell high this winter on players such as Sonny Gray, Ryan Madson or Sean Doolittle. They blew through their international signing pool, so they’re all but out of business on that front for the next two years. And now comes the really bad news: Suddenly, they’re on the verge of having no money, as those revenue-sharing payouts disappear.
So where does that leave them? Treading water, that’s where. Until they get their ballpark nightmare resolved, they appear more interested in spending what dollars they have on scouting and player development than on the big league roster. And this whole season is beginning to look like a giant Who Trades for Sonny Gray Sweepstakes.
San Diego Padres
Hope Meter on the field: 2
We always hesitate to use that magic word, “tanking,” to describe any franchise. But folks on other teams — not to mention nearly every agent on the planet — seem to share none of that hesitation when they talk about the current version of the Padres.
“They’re the poster child for tanking,” said an exec. “They get millions of dollars in revenue sharing. They spend none of it on players.”
Well, that’s not exactly true. They’re going to spend $28 million next year to pay players who used to play for them. But that’s $2 million more than their projected payroll for players who will play for them in 2017, according to baseball-reference.com. We count 15 players in baseball who average more dollars than that per year in their current contracts — by themselves.
There’s also this: There might be 12 people in America who could name the Padres’ starting rotation if the season started today. That’s because the five names in it would most likely be Luis Perdomo, Christian Friedrich, Jarred Cosart, Cesar Vargas and the newly signed Jhoulys Chacin. OK, so it’s likely they’ll sign at least one more bargain-bin free-agent starter to bump another name or two out of there. But it’s still safe to guess you won’t be getting this rotation mixed up with that of, say, the New York Mets.
So does this constitute “tanking?” We offered Padres general manager A.J. Preller the opportunity to dispute that label. He took us up on it.
He described his position players as “young,” “prospect-laden” and “guys with the ability to be impact big leaguers.” So his team has made a conscious decision, he said, to “give these guys an opportunity” to play in the big leagues “rather than fill our roster with stopgap players.” He also promised that as these players develop into a group that is close to winning, ownership is committed to spending money to “add players from outside the organization who can put you over the top.”
Also in their defense, the Padres spent more than $70 million this year on amateur players and a bunch of much-hyped international free agents. And Keith Law rates their system as one of best in baseball. So if you get back to us in three years, they’ll have a whole different score on the Hope Meter.
But in the meantime, unless they drop plans to charge admission for every game in 2017, this is a team that’s “almost embarrassing,” said one long-time exec. Just two years after an ill-conceived spending spree to win, they’ve made a U-turn in the exact opposite direction — to launch a full-bore pursuit of the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft.
Hope Meter off the field: 6
Let’s round up all the good news first. The Padres play in one of America’s most beautiful ballparks in one of America’s most idyllic cities. They also have one of baseball’s best TV deals. And neither of those developments stop them from getting hefty revenue-sharing checks. It’s quite a combination — especially for a team that’s all lined up to have a minuscule payroll.
But this is also a team that recently fired its president and CEO, Mike Dee. And it’s a team that had its GM suspended for 30 days for failing to disclose required medical information before making a trade in July that sent pitcher Drew Pomeranz to Boston.
And now the Padres find themselves trying to fend off tanking accusations, even though the new labor deal included no measures that would make either tanking or a $26 million payroll illegal.
What the agreement does do is mildly discourage tanking “around the edges,” said one official familiar with it. So how will it do that? By making it more difficult for the worst teams to collect massive bonus pools to manipulate the draft, for one thing. There used to be a gap of nearly $5 million between the slots for the No. 1 pick and the No. 5 pick, for instance. Next year, that difference will be less than $2 million.
So on one hand, there is less monetary incentive to be really bad, as opposed to just bad. But on the other, said one exec, “you still get the pick. And if you look at the history of the draft, the difference between [the talent of] the No. 1 pick versus the fifth pick is significant. And the only way to get that No. 1 pick is to lose. A lot.”
Over the past year, we’ve heard all sorts of ideas for how to discourage tanking, from draft lotteries to soft payroll minimums to rules that would have stripped revenue sharing from teams that failed to generate revenue on their own. This agreement includes none of that. So the Padres are well within their rights to field a low-budget big league team in 2017 that can’t possibly win. But that doesn’t mean they’re immune to the furor over that strategy in the rest of the industry.
Tampa Bay Rays
Hope Meter off the field: 4
The Rays franchise continues to be run by a group of really smart people. So that always beats the alternative. But look at the rest of their division. Look at what they’re up against. It’s not just David versus Goliath. It’s David versus Four Goliaths.
“How,” asked one sympathetic baseball man, “can you continue to ask a bunch of exceptionally creative and bright people to keep searching through their cushions on the couch to see if they can find a few more nickels?”
Nothing in the new labor deal will keep the Rays from remaining one of the biggest revenue-sharing recipients in baseball. Yet their owner, Stu Sternberg, was still the only owner in the sport to vote against that deal. Which tells you he feels the rest of this agreement didn’t do enough to give his team the ability to compete with the behemoths.
So for everything the Rays do right, almost 100 percent of their long-term hope is tied to one question. Are they ever going to get a new ballpark? Stop us if you’ve heard that one before.
Outwardly, the Rays continue to project optimism that they’re moving in that direction — and that they can pair that park, in the next few years, with a new TV deal that will change the face of their franchise.
But not everyone in baseball shares that optimism. So is this a team bound for better times in Tampa — or for a new park in beautiful downtown Montreal? We’ll have that answer one of these years. But for now, the Hope Meter can’t assume anything.
Hope Meter on the field: 7
Let’s give this team credit. It could do exactly what the Padres are doing. But the Rays aren’t trying to unload Evan Longoria. They’re highly unlikely to trade Chris Archer. And they just signed Wilson Ramos to a two-year deal.
So at least they’re trying to compete. They’re still likely to trade away Alex Cobb or Drew Smyly in the next couple of weeks, or even both. But they’ll have plenty of quality starting pitching remaining, an infield with the potential to generate offense at all four positions and the best defensive outfielder in baseball (Kevin Kiermaier) piling up Web Gems in center field. They’ve also been linked in recent days with free-agent masher Jose Bautista, who lives just across the causeway in Tampa.
But their problem now is their problem every year. How much depth can any team amass with a $70 million payroll (or less)? Um, not as much as those four teams they’re competing with. That’s just reality.
And how long can they keep this group together? You know that answer. You’ve seen that movie. Unless they sell off a couple of more veterans, either at the trade deadline or next winter, they’d be looking at a $100 million payroll in 2018. And that ain’t happening.
When Keith Law looks at their system, he sees more depth than stars. So as long as the Rays are playing baseball inside Tropicana Field, in front of the fewest paying customers in North America, they’re stuck inside the same box that has held them captive for years. And that means they’d better keep digging for those nickels.
Hope Meter on the field: 4
It wasn’t so long ago that the Reds were practically a perennial contender. Remember? From 2010 to 2013, they made the postseason three times in four years, and only five teams in baseball won more games than they did. You could look it up.
But it has all unraveled fast, with back-to-back seasons of 98 and 94 losses respectively. And now they find themselves in the ultimate no-win quagmire. They’re nowhere near ready to contend. But they’ve had a tougher time hitting the reset button than most teams.
Votto won’t waive his no-trade clause. Bailey is owed $68 million over the next three years and is coming off Tommy John surgery. Phillips has generated no interest. And Mesoraco has been able to catch only 18 games in two years because of shoulder and hip issues.
Meanwhile, when the Reds did decide to sell, if it could go wrong, it did. Aroldis Chapman‘s looming domestic-abuse suspension destroyed his trade value. Deals that would have shipped out Phillips and Zack Cozart both fell through. And they spent two years fielding disappointing offers for Jay Bruce. So only the trade that sent Johnny Cueto to the Royals brought back the kind of return a team like this could rebuild around.
“They probably should have gotten out front of this, by trading away all their valuable assets when they had that chance,” one rival exec said. “Instead, they’re doing it halfway. And when you do that . . . it can take six to nine years to get back [and contend].”
The Reds did go into last season with six of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, and supplemented that with an excellent draft. But if there are any experts out there who see them contending before 2019, we haven’t found them.
Hope Meter off the field: 6
You know, it could be worse. At least the Reds play in a town that loves baseball. They have an excellent TV deal, considering they play in the smallest TV market in baseball. They have a caring fan base. And a ballpark. And an owner who wants to win. And the revenue-sharing checks won’t be stopping anytime soon.
So this is a franchise that doesn’t have to fight any of the battles the Rays and A’s are facing to survive. It has just made a series of decisions it probably would love to have back. Ten years, $225 million for Votto? Six years, $105 million for Bailey? Six years, $72.5 million for Phillips? The Reds could use a mulligan on all of those, in retrospect.
“The big difference between big and small markets is the ability to make mistakes,” one baseball official said. “Cincinnati is one of those markets that couldn’t afford to make those mistakes. But they made them. And now they’re paying for them.”