It's been a rough start to the season for the Rays, who have not only lost their first five games but will be without the services of Evan Longoria for roughly three weeks due to an oblique strain. The team is hitting .136/.218/.260, and has scored all of seven runs. Matt Joyce is 1-for-14 and obviously a flop. Dan Johnson is 1-for-19 and clearly an inadequate solution at first base. Johnny Damon is 1-for-15 and completely washed up. Manny Ramirez is 1-for-17, and not only washed up but hearing the boos. It's all gone to hell in a handbasket for the 2010 AL East champs.
Even with the historical precedent of only two teams having reached the postseason after starting the year 0-5, it's pretty silly to start pounding nails in the coffin of the Rays — or the Red Sox, for that matter, as they find themselves in a similar hole. Both team are still likely to be among the strongest in the league, and the odds are great that as it's been for six of the last seven years, the AL Wild Card will come out of the East.
In recent weeks, an even sillier conversation about the Rays has been making the rounds: the idea that both they and the A's could be contracted. Never mind the fact that the contraction threat which followed the 2001 season turned out to be spectacularly unfeasible, a transparent ploy to create leverage in the battle with the Major League Baseball Players Association as the expiration of their Collective Bargaining Agreement loomed, and to get new, publicly funded ballparks built in the markets which landed in the crosshairs (Minnesota, Florida, Montreal and Tampa Bay).
Last May, Fox Sport's Ken Rosenthal resusciatated the idea of contraction, and he returned to it in more detail back in February. Both the A's and the Rays are small-market teams that have ranked in the lower half of the league in attendance even amid runs of success over the past decade; to some, that's proof that they're not worthy of major league baseball. Not coincidentally, aside from the Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers — all of whom occupy venerable landmark ballparks — they're the only two teams who have not moved into shiny new ballparks since baseball's building boom began in the late eighties. In Rosenthal's thought bubble, the idea is that the two teams would be contracted as part of the negotiations involving revenue sharing in the new CBA. The contracted teams' owners would be allowed to buy two financially troubled marquee teams, with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg purchasing the Mets from the Madoff-mired Wilpons and A's owner Lew Wolff buying the Dodgers from the divorce drama-mired McCourts.
Rosenthal acknowledged some of the obstacles in his piece, such as opposition from the players' union, but the thought balloon seems not to have burst. Earlier this week, Forbes' Michael Ozanian wrote of a "[g]roundswell building in Major League Baseball" to dump the Rays, who despite winning the division twice in the past three years have averaged just 23,000 fans per game even with some of the league's lowest ticket prices. It's true that the Rays do have real and perhaps intractable problems with regards to their current home; Tropicana Field is a rather uninspiring domed facility which sits on a peninsula separated from the population center, with limited access to the mainland. But even Ozanian, who publishes his annual estimates of each franchise's valuation at Forbes, ought to know better, as my Baseball Prospectus colleague Neil deMause writes:
Contracting teams would be insane: I already addressed this a few weeks back, but the Forbes figures make it even clearer: The Rays and A's combined are worth $638 million, up $27 million from the year before, and who in their right mind liquidates an asset that keeps gaining in value without even trying? Stuart Sternberg may be trying to scare St. Petersburg into letting the team open stadium talks with Tampa by dropping contraction threats—at least I think that's what his latest oblique statement about "my patience is greater than Major League Baseball's" was meant to threaten—but the numbers still don't pan out. (Which makes Ozanian's own rumor-mongering about zapping the Rays especially puzzling; doesn't this guy read his own magazine?)
In other words, the teams are too big to fail. Meanwhile, former BP colleague Maury Brown has an even more detailed reaction to the Ozanian piece at his Biz of Baseball site, enumerating other obstacles, all of which factored into the 2001 plan's derailment and are no less in play now. Namely:
• The players' union:
The MLBPA certainly had something to say about it in 2001 with the Expos and Twins, as they do today. Simply put, contraction equals laying off workers. Even if there were a dispersal draft, there would be less roster spots at the major league level, and even though they aren’t union members, the associated minor league clubs would be dissolved, as well. A source at the MLBPA confirmed that they would vigorously fight any attempt at contraction.
Unlike the Expos, who had no great broadcast deal, the Twins had reached one with Midwest Sports Channel in 1998 that would run through the 2003 season, and Fox Sports Net Minnesota had purchased all the assets associated with MSC. Now, just two years later, the Twins were saying they were interested in being contraction partners with the Expos after relocation efforts failed. Fox was applying pressure to hold the Twins to their broadcast agreements by suing them (see FOX SportsNet Minnesota v Minnesota Twins)
It’s possible that that would happen again. While Ozanian said that he doubts "there will be any baseball at Tropicana Field after 2014", the fact is, the Rays reached an 8-year extension with FSN Florida in 2008, meaning that broadcast agreement won’t be expiring until 2016.
Long before baseball understood the brilliance of Pete Rozelle – the NFL’s broadcast deals that see all its revenues distributed equally across the league’s owners – each had individual broadcast deals at the local and regional level, and with it, the beginnings of an arcane, hodgepodge of television and physical territories began. If there’s talk of contraction, it’s because relocation is a battle hard fought in which no owner in the league really wins.
...Back in 2004, I wrote that The Expos move to DC doesn’t mean the A’s get into San Jose, and that holds true today. The Giants just don’t seem willing to give up their territory in Santa Clara Co.
And so, the real issue with all this contraction talk is, no owner in MLB is willing to allow relocation out of a club’s given territory. The owners of clubs that don’t have financial issues (and, ironically, that now includes the Twins), would rather try and contract teams rather than have them land in their "backyard". After all, with less mouths to feed, those left standing reap the monetary benefits.
The Rays have some very real obstacles to overcome in order to remain competitive with the Yankees and the Red Sox in the long term. Nonetheless, it's a giant leap beyond that to suggest that the team should cease operation. DeMause's and Brown's entire columns are worth reading as necessary antidotes to the silliness being circulated with regards to contraction; at this point, anybody who's still writing that it's a viable option is just pushing propaganda on behalf of baseball's owners. Don't be fooled.