First the good news. For now, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have dodged the contraction bullet.
Now the bad news. Managing General Partner Vince Naimoli and General Manager Chuck LaMar, the folks most responsible for such an eminently contractible franchise, are still in charge.
As we now know, baseball’s strike-averting labor agreement will infuse the Rays with additional millions from revenue sharing, a luxury tax and a national television package. But after four years, all bets — and contraction bans — are off. In 2007 the owners will be free to rid the game of two loser franchises, and the players won’t contest it.
This means the Rays, saddled with the wrong owner in the wrong facility in an area that offers so many leisure alternatives to indoor baseball, will have four years to be competitive — or be gone.
Having a cache of cash won’t necessarily save the Rays from themselves. Not when there’s a track record of having ladled too much of it out to the Vinny Castillas, Greg Vaughns, Juan Guzmans and Wilson Alvarezes. Or trading prospects for the Danny Clyburns and Kevin Stockers. Only in a perverse D-Rays context, would Ben Grieve and Esteban Yan look like veritable bargains.
The Rays will never be the Yankees, but neither will any other George Steinbrenner-less franchise not located in New York. But there are models in Oakland and Minnesota. Emulating those efforts, however, requires prudent investment in the product, astute personnel decisions and aggressive marketing. And luck. And then winning.
But there are no guarantees — except that absent winning, this franchise is history in four years.