Book Review: In Tampa, an Extra 2% edge

The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the least heralded success stories in sports of the past decade. In 2007, it was business as usual for the then-Devil Rays. They went 66-96, good for their ninth last place finish in ten seasons as a Major League club, and just under 1.4 million fans watched Alberto Reyes rack up 26 saves.

Since then, the Rays have won the AL East twice and made the World Series once. They’ve dethroned the league’s two richest teams and still sport a solid young core of players that make them a perennial threat in the American League. They don’t have a new stadium and still draw under 1.8 million fans per season. Yet, the Rays have become the latest small-market success story. How?

The how is the subject of Jonah Keri’s latest book. Entitled The Extra 2 %, Keri’s book explores, as the lofty subtitle says, “how Wall Street strategies took a Major League Baseball team from worst to first.” With a new ownership group in place that was willing to experiment and push the envelope, the Rays took advantage of their position at the bottom of baseball’s economic pecking order to dig for advantages. Luck played no small part in it, but the Rays have something that works, for now.

To set the stage, Keri spends the first few chapters exploring the tortured history of baseball in Tampa Bay. The sprawling metropolitan had always appealed to Major League Baseball more as a threat than as an actual landing place for a team. Whenever a successful franchise needed a new stadium, it would threaten a move to St. Petersburg. The White Sox did so in the early 1990s; the Mariners followed suit a few years later; and the San Francisco Giants were apparently this close to shacking up in the Trop.

Yet, despite the fact that St. Petersburg went so far as to build a stadium — an ugly one at that — without a tenant, Major League Baseball never graced the area with a team. Miami got its franchise first, and it took the threat of a lawsuit that would have rocked baseball from its lofty perch atop an antitrust exemption to see the Devil Rays enter the world.

When they did, it was a spectacular disaster. Vince Naimoli was the wrong man to own the team, and Chuck LaMar was the wrong general manager. The club burned draft picks by signing bad free agents. They wasted other picks by avoiding top talent in the name of “signability.” Sometimes, they landed the right guy; Carl Crawford stuck. But Jason Standridge and Dewon Brazelton are a testament to the disaster.

Keri’s narrative picks up the Extra 2 % when Stuart Sternberg, a baseball fan and Wall Street guy, buys the club from Naimoli. He brought Matthew Silverman and Andrew Friedman with him. Together, these three guys changed the franchise. They changed the way it does business; they spruced up Tropicana Field as best they could; and they began to search for the edge — the Extra 2 % — that would allow the Rays to remain competitive in the rich American League East.

Unfortunately for Keri’s book, the meat of the Extra 2 % is a proprietary one. James Click and Josh Kalk, two former Baseball Prospectus writers, are among the top figures working behind the scenes, but the Rays, who cooperated with Keri only at the end of his reporting, keep these minds away from the press. A certain part of the Extra 2 % is still a secret.

Yet, that doesn’t leave the book lacking, and Keri provides deep insights into the Rays’ process. He talks with Silverman and Friedman about their baseball arbitrage process, and while he doesn’t go inside the Rays’ draft room, he explains how the club is working to identify baseball talent on the cheap while selling high and drafting wisely. The Extra 2 % comes from the organization’s idea that they have to be that much more diligent than their competitors. The Devil Rays might have missed out on Albert Pujols in the early 2000s, but that’s a mistake the current regime will not make again.

Ultimately, the book is a great read, and I can’t recommend it enough for Yankee fans of all stripes. We might envy the Rays their recent success and no longer view them as the pushovers they once were. But that doesn’t make them an unlikeable franchise, and Keri’s book humanizes a franchise long scorned by the baseball cognoscenti.

The end of Keri’s book, on the current stadium, left me wanting the more than isn’t there yet. Tropicana Field is ugly and out of the way. It’s in a town with very high unemployment, and while the Rays have the highest TV ratings in the game, they can’t get fans to come. They also can’t force the area to fork over public funds for a new stadium.

So my question still remains: Can the Rays maintain their success? Keri says they can, but I’m less optimistic. (Perhaps, that’s my inner Yankee fan speaking.) Their payroll this year is much lower than in recent seasons, and their bullpen and lineup approach resembles something of a band aid. They will rise and fall on their arms, but as the young guns grow up, can they keep winning? The cast of The Extra 2 % came of age at a time when the Rays had the right guys making the right Number 1 draft picks. Success comes at a price, and in 2011, we’ll learn if the Rays can sustain success of it small-market wins are merely cyclical.

Editor’s Note: Jonah Keri is a good friend of mine, and his publisher supplied me with a review copy of the book. Joe and I are also mentioned by name in the Acknowledgements. Still, this review is an impartial one.

Cashman shoots down Perez rumor, thankfully

Via Chad Jennings, Brian Cashman shot down the rumor about the Yankees having interest in Oliver Perez rather bluntly this afternoon. “I was asked [by those] above me to look into it just to be certain,” said Cashman. “We always look at everything, but it’s not something that right now makes sense for us based on everything we’ve seen.” That’s the politically correct way of saying Perez sucks.

It’s also good to know that those above Cashman have such a keen eye for talent that they asked him to check out Perez. You can never be too sure, right?

Open Thread: Good journalism vs. bad journalism

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

I tend to have very little interest in players’ personal lives. It adds zero value to my life, all I worry about is what happens on the field. So when Austin Romine left camp for a few days last week for a personal reason, I thought nothing of it. Stuff comes up, who cares, none of my business. Jack Curry wrote about Romine today, and it turns out the young backstop had to leave camp to attend the funeral of his younger cousin, who was killed while participating in a combat operation in Afghanistan. “At this point in time,” said Romine, who remained in camp for ten days after learning of his cousin’s death, “I have no more tears.” It’s a great and heartfelt article that gets RAB’s highest recommendation.

Unfortunately, that side of journalism, the good side, is generally overshadowed by garbage. Instead of more columns like Curry’s, we get stuff like this complete assassination of Marcus Thames by T.J. Simers of The LA Times, a hatchet job that went so far as to attack the pronunciation of the guy’s name. Based on what we read and saw last year, Marcus was as nice a guy as they come, and if you needed any reason to root harder for him, well Simers provided it. I’m glad Thames took the high road and refused to stoop to that level, a level unfit for the hackiest of hacks.

Anyways, here is your open thread for the night. YES is playing an encore of this afternoon’s Yankees-Orioles game, and MLB Network will be doing the same with Mets-Tigers. All three hockey locals are in action as well. Talk about whatever, go nuts.

Colon & Garcia’s Opt-Out Dates

We’ve known for a while that both Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have the ability to become free agents if they don’t make the Yankees out of Spring Training, but now we have some actual dates thanks to Ken Rosenthal. Garcia can opt out of his minor league deal on March 29th (next Tuesday) while Colon can do so on Opening Day, March 31st (next Thursday). If the Yankees plan on releasing Sergio Mitre, they’ll have to do it before March 28th (next Monday) to avoid paying him his full season salary ($900,000). In that case they’d only owe him 45 days termination pay.

I suspect the opt-outs won’t be that big of a deal, the Yankees are going to need to make a decision about the fourth and fifth starters very soon, by the end of the weekend at the latest simply because there are only so many games left in Spring Training. They need to start lining guys up and stretching everyone out to maximum capacity.

Injury Updates: Chavez and … Marte?

Via Erik Boland and Chad Jennings, we’ve got a pair of quick injury updates for you. Eric Chavez experienced spasms in his calf yesterday, but he says it’s fine. He took batting practice today and will do a full set of fielding drills tomorrow, though Joe Girardi told him they’re going to hold him out of games until Friday. I know Chavez has been brittle over the last few years, but I wouldn’t worry about calf spasms. No big deal.

Meanwhile, the forgotten man Damaso Marte was in the clubhouse this morning and said his surgically repaired shoulder is doing well. He expects to start working out and throwing soon, and doctors have told him that there’s a chance he’ll be ready to return by the All-Star break. I still have zero expectations of Marte making it back healthy this season, but hey, good news is better than bad news.

The RAB Radio Show: March 22, 2011

The Yankees have four pitchers competing for three spots, and less than a week to determine who is the odd man out. Mike and I tackle the issue. We also discuss Curtis Granderson‘s injury and how that can play into the situation.

Podcast run time 18:45

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

Montero’s cup of coffee

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Despite the competitive overtures, the Yankees’ backup catcher situation, at least in terms of Opening Day, is likely settled. Austin Romine might have made a decent case, but when Joe Girardi announces the 25 men headed to the Bronx on March 31, expect him to call Jesus Montero‘s name. With Francisco Cervelli sidelined for the next few weeks, it’s a sensible temporary option that could aid Montero’s development.

Montero breaking camp with the big league club acts in the same manner as a September call-up. While Montero did spend time with the team last September, he was not placed on the active roster. He can get that experience during the first two to three weeks of the season. During that time he can start six or seven games, giving Russell Martin a rest and perhaps horning in on a start or two at DH. That would not only give him time traveling with the big league club, but would give him 25 or 30 PA of experience.

At that point perhaps the Yankees will have a better idea of what they want to do with Montero. If they think he can be a valuable contributor to the big league club in a part-time role, they can install Cervelli at AAA. If, on the other hand, they think he needs to play every day in order to hone his defensive skills, he can take the shuttle to Scranton and allow for Cervelli’s return. In that way, the cup of coffee acts as both a taste of the big leagues and as a further evaluation period.

The most prominent objection to using Montero as a backup is that it won’t afford him regular at-bats — or, in Montero’s case, regular reps behind the plate. Behind Martin he’d likely play once, maybe twice per week. Combined with a few appearances as the DH, and that amounts to maybe 250 PA during the course of the season. For that reason, I wouldn’t advocate Montero spending the entire season in the bigs unless there was room for him to play every day, preferably behind the plate. But for two or three weeks, there isn’t much downside.

There are really only two negative aspects to utilizing Montero at the start of the season. First is service time. He’ll accumulate some, but if they option him when Cervelli returns it will be a negligible amount. He’s going to end up in the majors at some point this season and will start his arbitration clock. Two or three extra weeks won’t make a huge difference. Second is using an option. If the Yankees called up Montero in, say, June, and kept him up all year, they wouldn’t burn an option. If they use him as the backup they will (assuming they send him down in a few weeks). But if Montero develops as hoped, the options won’t be an issue. They won’t need them anyway.

When the Yankees assembled for spring training it appeared they had clear paths for their catchers. Martin was the starter, Cervelli was the backup, Montero would continue to hone his skills at AAA, and Austin Romine would wait at AA for an opportunity for advancement. Cervelli’s injury threw things off temporarily, but the Yankees can use this as an opportunity. Montero can get a taste of the big leagues before heading to AAA and getting regular reps behind the plate. At the same time, the Yankees can further evaluate their best prospect. Cervelli’s injury might have changed the team’s plans, but it might end up being a net positive.