The Tampa Bay Rays have always struggled drawing fans to their games. Big names like Bud Selig, Scott Boras, and even owner Stu Sternberg have all publicly acknowledged this fact. Because of the lack of attendance, the Rays simply cannot sustain a large payroll. In 2014, this figure should be in the high $70 million range–and while by most standards that would be considered ordinary, that is in fact the highest payroll the Rays have ever had. We know the Rays rarely can afford to give out big money to players, but let’s do a thought experiment: what if they had the same amount of money to spend as the New York Yankees?
Through a combination of players that the Rays could have extended with this extra money, as well as free agents that could have been signed, I am going to attempt to put together a 25-man roster that would fit the Rays if they had the Yankees’ payroll. The Yankees’ salaries normally exceed $200 million, but for the purpose of this article I will “cap” the Rays’ spending at $200 million.
To put together a roster, I am going to consider any player that has ever been with the Rays as someone that the Rays could have given an extension rather than let go into the free agent market. I will also consider any player that has signed a free agent deal since the Rays debuted as a team in 1998. For salaries, I am going to use what the player will make in 2014. You could argue that if the Rays had extended some of these players before they hit the open market, they would have paid less than the player is actually making. However, for the sake of being conservative, I am going to use the money they got on the open market. For pre-arbitration salaries I will just use $600,000 as the players’ salary figure. Without further ado, here is the team that I would create if my name was Andrew Friedman and I had $200 million dollars.
Starting Outfield ($38.7 million)
LF- Desmond Jennings ($600,000)
CF- Jacoby Ellsbury ($21.1 million)
RF- Matt Holliday ($17 million)
The outfield was the among hardest decisions in this piece. Ellsbury is a bit of a reach at $21.1 million, and is an injury risk. However, it is hard to argue with an 8.1 and a 5.8 WAR (Baseball-Reference version) the past two full seasons he has played. As far as the other two spots, Matt Holliday comes over to add a middle of the order presence. His defense isn’t good, and he plays left in St. Louis, but his bat would more than fit right field. Jennings might not be a superstar, but his bat is slightly above average, and while he still has some work to do there, he is young enough that the bat still has some projection. Overall, I’ll take that at $600,000 any day. You will notice that Wil Myers isn’t on this list, and you wil out find out why later on. This is a good outfield, and features two high-profile names.
Starting Infield ($43.5 million)
1B- Prince Fielder ($24 million)
2B- Ben Zobrist ($7 million)
3B- Evan Longoria ($7.5 million)
SS- Yunel Escobar ($5 million)
The Rays already have three-quarters of the infield that they would have if they were given additional funds. Longoria and Zobrist are both underpaid, and both are among the best in baseball at their respective positions. There are bigger names out there at short than Escobar, but honestly there aren’t many better options at the position. Escobar might not be flashy, but he plays plus defense, and he holds his own at the plate. First base becomes interesting, as it is a place that teams love to add a huge bat. Big contracts to first basemen often don’t work out great, as evidenced by deals like Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard, among others. But to me, adding Fielder is the best way to add a huge bat to an already potent lineup. Yes, it is an overpay, but when you have $200 million you overpay from time to time to add players that you hope have an impact. Overall, this infield gives the Rays great production.
Starting Catcher ($2.7 million)
Ryan Hanigan ($2.7 million)
I actually like Ryan Hanigan quite a bit, which is why he gets the nod at catcher. There are other flashier options out there, but great catchers rarely hit the open market, and the Rays have never had a catcher as good as Hanigan. Hanigan is one of the best defensive catchers in the game, consistently being among league leaders in caught stealing percentage. He is also lauded for his ability to frame pitches. Offensively, he can blame his rough 2013 on a wrist injury and bad lack, and he should rebound next year. Combine that with his defense and he is a very valuable player at $2.7 million.
Designated Hitter ($16 million)
Mike Napoli ($16 million)
Napoli might be a slight overpay at $16 million, but like I said, if you have the money you sometimes overpay to get the player you want. Napoli has been consistent over his career, as he has never put up numbers below league average. He strikes out quite a bit, but his average (.259 career and 2013 average) and on base percentage (.357 career and .360 in 2013) are still solid, especially if you factor in his power numbers (.502 career slugging, .482 in 2013). He didn’t catch in 2013 because of some health problems. However, he seems more or less past those, and would make an ok backup catcher. He isn’t a defensive wizard by any means, but he would get the job done for the few games he would need to catch, and would open up a bench spot to be used elsewhere. Napoli would be yet another middle of the order presence, and rounds out what would make a great Rays lineup.
Starting Pitching ($54.2 Million)
1- David Price ($14.1 million)
2- Cliff Lee ($25 million)
3- James Shields ($13.5 million)
4- Matt Moore ($1 million)
5- Alex Cobb ($600,000)
With the now available funds, the rotation gets a huge upgrade, as the Rays would have the funds to have retained Shields an offseason ago, as well as add Cliff Lee. Price is a perennial Cy Young candidate, and would lead the rotation for years to come after the Rays extended him. Lee is a stud, and is worth every cent of the $25 million dollars he is receiving. He is getting older, but hasn’t shown many signs of wear yet, and would make a great 1-2 punch with Price. There are not too many pitchers that can match the durability and performance of Shields the last three years. With Yankee money, the Rays can afford to keep him rather than trade him to the Kansas City Royals (although it was still tempting because of how good a return the Rays received in that trade). Wil Myers cannot be on this team because Shields is retained, but when you can sign Matt Holliday and Jacoby Ellsbury, the impact of his loss is outweighed by the benefit of keeping Shields. Moore and Cobb are both young, but both could be potential Cy Young candidates down the line. With one more year of experience, they will be that much better, and figure to provide great value at around the league minimum. This would be by far the best rotation in the league.
Relief Pitching ($27.8 million)
Joe Nathan ($10 million)
Grant Balfour ($6 million)
Joel Peralta ($3 million)
Jake McGee ($1.5 million)
J.P. Howell ($4 million)
Tom Gorzelanny ($3 million)
Matt Albers ($2.3 million)
The thing about relievers is that they are so variable and many of the higher-paid ones are not worth the money they are making. This bullpen has a ton of names, but it is not so much better than what the Rays have put together in recent years. Nevertheless, this is a really good bullpen, and doesn’t even involve the Rays doing too much different from what they have already done. The main difference obviously is signing Nathan, but when you have the money, you can sign a big-name closer. Howell is brought back because he is a good value at $4 million to be a solid lefty, although he can also get righties out. Peralta gives solid production, and McGee is one of the best young left-handed relievers in the game. Both also come at bargain prices. Gorzelanny is a good swingman who comes at a decent price. Finally Albers, who has been solid the last two years, rounds out the bullpen. Overall, a quality bullpen put together at a pretty decent price.
Bench ($13.4 million)
UT- Logan Forsythe ($600,000)
IF- Kelly Johnson ($3 million)
OF- David DeJesus ($4.8 million)
OF- Jonny Gomes ($5 million)
Overall, this is a solid bench that would get the job done. I like both Forsythe quite a bit, and despite his struggles in 2013 due to him dealing with plantar fasciitis, he is a versatile fielder with a good bat. Johnson doesn’t have the defense that Forsythe does, but he provides decent left-handed pop off the bench and can play second, third, and left field as well. DeJesus is a quality player that this righties really well and plays decent defense. He would be a good option to spell Jennings in left when a tough right handed pitcher is on the mound, and he is also capable of playing centerfield. Gomes would be the resident lefty masher. Overall, this bench is solid, and has a good combination of defense, pop, and versatility.
In total, I spent $196.3 million to field this team. Of course, that is ridiculous for most teams, but the Yankees always are around this number, so it would be realistic for them. There are quite a few reasons why this is not realistic, but this is a great way to imagine just how good the Rays could be with some more money to spend on free agents and retain their own players. What if the Rays ran the organization exactly the same way that they do now, but they could afford to sign a Holliday or a Fielder every now and again? The Rays are already likely to win 90+ games in 2014–imagine how many games they could win with an additional $30-$40 million in funding each year, let alone an extra $100-130 million! This shows us truly how well Andrew Friedman runs the Tampa Bay Rays, and puts perspective on just how good the Rays could be with addition funds. Maybe some day the Rays will be able to increase their spending and become that much scarier as an organization.