The Future of the Tampa Bay Rays
While the 2020 season was out of the norm, it was a landmark season for the Tampa Bay Rays franchise. For the second time in their short history, the Rays won the AL Pennant. And despite his questionable decision to remove Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series, Kevin Cash won American League Manager of the Year.
The Rays success in the 2020 season was, in many ways, expected. They finished the 2018 season with a 90-72, but missed the postseason. In 2019, the Rays went 96-66 in the regular season, defeated the Oakland A’s in the Wild Card Game and took the Houston Astros to five games in the Division Series. In the shortened 60 game season of 2021, the Rays remained steadily on top the AL East the entire season and secured the number one seed in the AL.
Secrets to Success
The Rays have achieved this success by maintaining one of the lowest payrolls in MLB. The franchises they faced along their path to the World Series (Yankees, Astros and Dodgers) have some of the highest payrolls in the league. So, to what is the rise of the Rays as a successful team attributed to? If their postseason run proves anything, it’s that you can build a successful franchise without breaking the bank.
The Rays success in recent years has been built around solid pitching, notably a bullpen. The Rays led MLB in Saves and Save Opportunities. They finished in the top five in most statistical pitching categories. Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton proved to be among the best starting rotations in baseball. While their bats did not dazzle throughout the season, clutch hitting pulled them through the postseason. A star was born in Randy Arozarena, who broke the postseason records for Home Runs and Singles. Despite falling short of a World Series victory, the Rays will likely return in 2021 with roughly the same team and be well positioned to compete in the American League.
A Franchise in Transition?
The rise of the Rays in the last few seasons places the franchises future front and center. The teams future in the Tampa Bay area has been a topic of public discourse for years now. In recent years, stadium searches in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have fallen through. A plan to split the season between Montreal and Tampa Bay has also been floated. Many believe such a plan would result in a permanent relocation.
In recent years, the Rays attendance has been among the worst in MLB. The conditions and location of Tropicana Field are a major factor for low attendance. When you play 81 regular season home games, the attractiveness of the ballpark plays a considerable role in attendance. St. Petersburg is also not centrally located in the greater Tampa Bay metropolitan area. Location is key if you are going to attract fans from the entire region.
The 2020 season came without crowds, so attendance was a non-factor. But looking back at the 2019 postseason, the Rays were drawing over 36,000 for early week games against the Astros. The Rays also remain in the middle of the pack in terms of local TV ratings. Both of these trends suggest they have a strong fan base in Central Florida. The Tampa Bay media market is the 13th largest market in the US and just down I-4, Orlando has the 18th largest market.
Expanding Across Central Florida
The worst idea of all is the proposal to have the franchise split time between Tampa Bay and Montreal. If Montreal wants an MLB franchise, they should pitch MLB on expansion. Giving up on MLB in the third largest state in America would be major mistake for the league. What’s needed is the right location for a new ballpark. And the reality is, they may need to expand their search and think outside of the box. What the Rays need to be doing is thinking of themselves not only as the ball club for the Gulf Coast, but also for the entirety of Central Florida. Attention to the Orlando market is critical.
If the Rays want to become a franchise that splits time between two cities, it should be Tampa Bay and Orlando (not Tampa Bay and Montreal). Orlando remains one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in America. The city already supports NBA (Magic) and MLS (Orlando City) franchises. Supporting a winning MLB franchise would be a no-brainier. If a stadium deal does not come to fruition in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties expanding the search across the I-4 corridor should be seriously considered. A retractable roof stadium in the I-Drive entertainment district of Orlando would be the perfect fit for the franchise.
Orlando Magic co-founder, Pat Williams, has recently made a pitch to bring an MLB franchise to Orlando. Relocation of the Rays is his best opportunity for obtaining a team. At the very least, Orlando could be a critical partner in the expansion of the Rays brand in Central Florida. The franchise should consider moving their Spring Training facilities and playing a limited number of regular season games in the Orlando area. This would help to solidify a fan base across Central Florida and open up more opportunities.
Florida is the Future
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated his goal is to find a new stadium solution for Tampa Bay rather than relocate the franchise. In reality, moving a franchise out of the third most populous state to another market may be a bigger gamble. Additionally, the state of Florida produces the most college baseball recruits and MLB draft picks (per capita) than any other state. In the COVID-era, is there really a better location for a professional sports franchise than Florida?
The population growth in the state of Florida is undeniable and unlikely to stop anytime soon. It remains in question when crowds will return to professional (and collegiate) sporting events in many states. However, in Florida, NCAA and NFL teams already have (limited) attendance. As new residents from New York and New England states flock to the Sunshine State, they bring their team loyalties with them. This bodes well for attendance in a new ballpark, as the Rays play nearly 20 home games against either the Yankees or Red Sox. If the formula for success is a competitive team, a growing local population and an attractive, modern ballpark; there’s no reason the Rays should be looking for a new home outside of Central Florida.
This article originally appeared in the Internet Baseball Writers Association newsletter, Here’s the Pitch, on November 24, 2020.
**Picture is courtesy of People.com**