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Tampa Bay Rays

What are the Tampa Bay Rays doing?

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Jun 3, 2017; Seattle, WA, USA; Tampa Bay Rays designated hitter Corey Dickerson (left) is congratulated by third baseman Evan Longoria (3) after Dickerson hit a solo home run against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Are we seeing anything truly new from the Tampa Bay Rays?

Sure, the particulars seem egregious this time around: Earlier in the offseason, the Rays dealt franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder Denard Span, a pair of minor league pitchers the team might strike gold on if things go as well as humanly possible, and most importantly, (ready-ish) prospect Christian Arroyo, who will almost certainly take over Longoria’s third-base position at some point in the near future despite a poor 2016 in the minors and 2017 in the majors (along with 100 PA of good hitting with the Giants’ launching-pad Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento).

That was bad enough — the deal was consummated a month or so before Longoria would have achieved his 10/5 rights with the Rays and thereby the ability to veto any attempt to salary dump him in this manner. Tampa Bay’s lackluster return for trading away his services and his team-friendly deal, wherein the Rays had to take on a veteran contract and some of his salary while picking up a number of flawed prospects, shows that they were getting desperate and willing to pull the trigger on any remotely helpful deal that would get Longoria off the team.

Generally, this is where the Rays in the past would stop. They’re no strangers to doing one big deal to ship a star player who is growing expensive, and then returning to business as usual — neither of the James Shields and David Price trades, for instance, presaged massive, burn-it-all-down sell-offs. This year, however, things were different, as the Rays have showed us over the past week.

First, Tampa Bay dealt pitcher Jake Odorizzi, who was slated to make $6.3 million this season in his second arbitration year, to the Minnesota Twins for… basically nothing. On paper the return is Jermaine Palacios, a 20-year-old position player who is still struggling to figure out full-season A-ball. It’s possible he will turn into something special down the line, but the odds are against it, and he’s not a prospect with a pedigree. Odorizzi may be the definition of a league-average starting pitcher, but the Rays salary dumped him with essentially no return.

Then Tampa Bay took first baseman C.J. Cron off the Los Angeles Angels’ hands, which looked like a positive (if low-impact) move… until their corresponding roster move was to designate outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment. Dickerson was the second-best hitter for the Rays last year after departed first baseman Logan Morrison (whom Cron will be replacing, fulfilling the ongoing Tampa Bay mandate of not paying for or having continuity at the first base position since Carlos Pena left) and has a career 119 OPS+ from left and center fields. He was slated to be the starting left fielder for Tampa Bay next season, a position that for now will likely be taken by the extremely underwhelming Mallex Smith. Dickerson will almost certainly be traded instead of being claimed off waivers, but why do this in the first place? Why not at least keep him to the middle of the season and deal him then, rather than in a February waiver trade?

Money, of course: Dickerson is set to make $5.95 million next year, and the Rays don’t want to pay it. They’ll almost certainly find a suitor for him, too, since he’s a legitimate major league starter and a left-handed outfield bat. In fact it’s hard to think of a team in baseball that wouldn’t be improved by adding Dickerson for whoever their equivalent of Jermaine Palacios is, though perhaps the very public nature of Dickerson’s ejection from Tampa Bay will inspire more competition for his services and thus a better return package. Either way, the Rays are proving they can still tank their roster with the very best of them, doubling down on their commitment not to compete in 2018.

So what’s next? One would think dumping catcher Wilson Ramos and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria would be their new priorities. Both men might be a tough sell given that Ramos had a down year last season at the plate and Hechavarria’s bat still hasn’t sniffed league average in any year he’s been in the majors, but they’re making about $15 million combined in 2018. It’s clear that the Rays have been emboldened by much of the rest of the league’s indifference to winning this year to cut payroll to the bone. They have a ways to go if they’re going to catch up to the Philadelphia Phillies, after all.

This is how the Rays have always operated; Tampa Bay’s ownership has always been unapologetic and as anonymous as possible, and since golden boy Andrew Friedman left to run the Los Angeles Dodgers a few years ago, the team has basically had no public face in management at all. The team is basically a high-yield financial instrument for a bunch of Wall Street hedge fund guys, and as long as the money from regional and national media deals keeps rolling in they honestly couldn’t care less if the Rays win, lose, or even manage to entice fans to come watch the game. When a team acts like Tampa Bay acts, disregard the words. The team is telling you through its deeds that it’s not about the product on the field and definitely not about the paying customers. It’s about ownership’s bottom line — who cares about the rest?

But the Rays are telling you with their words, too. (Wink, wink.)

Welcome to the Rays Tank.

Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.

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