The villainy doesn’t end with the Astros

Between the Rays and Astros, which team is REALLY worse for baseball?
Image: (Getty Images)

There was a visceral joy in watching the Rays, on their fourth attempt, finally put the Astros to the sword last night.

Maybe it was even better that they gave the Astros such hope of history, of their own tainted version of salvation, to only snatch it away at the last. While the Astros will use their comeback from 3-0 down, along with their performance against perennial playoff tomato cans Minnesota and Oakland, as a springboard to decry their treatment and the perception of them as frauds through next season at least, had they pulled it off there most certainly would have been no living with them.

As Jesse pointed out, the Astros never really faced any consequences for their cheating, only losing a manager unwilling or unable to stop it and the head of a front office that was full of serpents. Which allowed the players to be around and play the victim as loudly and as frequently as they pleased. The juxtaposition of the brash, fun, and vibrant Rays against the seemingly constantly-whining and pining Astros made for easy storytelling.

But, at the end of it all now, one must ask what is the greater threat to the game? A one-off cheating scandal that MLB could have easily prevented if it simply thought of it – simply the natural extension of the kind of edge baseball teams have been seeking for close to two centuries now? Or the constant “economizing” of how a baseball team is built and run?

If baseball has been and will be representative of the country, then the Rays efficiency is no different than those whose models, projections, and theories closed factories and mills everywhere and turned the middle class into pudding. All in the name of doing it more cheaply for greater profit. Maybe it’s how the Rays have to do it, but now that they have done it for over a decade, it’s spread to those who don’t.

For years now, the Rays front office has been the marvel of the baseball world, both old-school and analytic, as they’ve produced winning teams seemingly only armed with MacGuyver-like materials. Even as they’ve shedded GMs, the Rays continue to produce player after player in their system and bring them through to the majors, where they star for a few years and then are shipped out for more young players before they actually have to pay them anything.

In fact, this Rays team isn’t really that homegrown. Sixteen of them were acquired by trade. Charlie Morton is their only “prized” free agent.

Some were astute thefts of players undervalued/used by other teams, like Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz. But others were the product of the Rays dumping established players before they became expensive Willy Adames was part of the David Price trade before he hit free agency. Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow came from punting Chris Archer before he hit the market. Hunter Renfroe for Tommy Pham before the latter’s arbitration made him more expensive.

And to be fair to the Rays, Price and Archer have either not quite hit the heights they did with Tampa consistently, or have completely fallen apart. Whether the Rays started the view that players peak well before 30 or just amplified it, certainly that’s now a staple of baseball thinking.

The Rays have perfected the model of team-building that maximizes production when the expenditure on players is the lowest, in pre-arbitration and in the first one or two years of arbitration. The savings is just as important as the play on the field. But that sort of thinking has strangled the free-agent market, and seen teams short-circuit their competitive windows all in search of the same savings they don’t need. It compromises the product for the sake of what amounts to pennies in the pocket of a billionaire.

For the most part, this is seen as shrewd maneuvering for a team that simply doesn’t have the resources. Is that so? Really? Stuart Sternberg might not be a multi-billionaire like most MLB and sport owners, but he’s worth nearly $1B. The Rays benefit from the same endless sources of cash flow that other teams do, like BamTech and revenue-sharing.

“The Rays don’t draw any fans!” is the cry. Isn’t that their fault at some point? If the park sucks that much, and is in a spot no one wants to get to, build another one people like better. Except Sternberg won’t do that by himself, or even without Tampa and St. Pete eating most of the cost. In fact, Sternberg has upped the ante on his publicly-subsidized stadium grift by trying to get two cities to build him a new park. That’s the turbo version with the heated seats.

The Rays could probably pay players more if they wanted, they just don’t. And thanks to their automated and sleek ways of creating a winning team without spending, most every team in baseball (even the ones with the most resources), are asking their front offices why can’t they do it for cheaper? In the past few years, we’ve seen the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and Dodgers duck the luxury tax to avoid penalties they can easily afford. The free-agent market dried up for two or three winters because owners were sure it could all be done for less. After all, the Rays do it with the least, right?

That’s hardly the fault of the players, of course. They would all cash in now if the system allowed. They’re the ones on the screen, and it sure is easier to root for them than the Astros players, who were the problem themselves. The Rays’ villainy, which has spread to just about every front office and owner’s box in the game, is above them. It’s the product of a broken system that values the men who study all the ways to make things more efficient at the cost of labor more than the labor. And let’s be honest, with every homer Randy Arozarena makes the Cardinals look stupider, and who isn’t here for that?

It is not the Rays’ fault that players are their most valuable, and very well may be at their peak, when they are the easiest to pay, before the age of 27 and before free agency and the latter years of arbitration. That is a product of the CBA. The Rays are just the gleaming symptom.

The World Series will be better off for not having the Astros there. But what the Rays represent… is that so much better?

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