When you have a team like the Rays that is so well-run and so well-constructed, finding weaknesses is tough. However, digging a little deeper, maybe it’s not that hard. Tampa Bay’s two biggest weaknesses are rather obvious – their terrible stadium situation and as a result of that, their limited payroll.
Think of the stadiums in the American League East. Up in Boston, you have Fenway Park, one of the most storied ballparks in MLB history. In Toronto, you have the Rogers Centre, a mammoth structure that created the craze over retractable roofs 25 years ago. In New York, Yankee Stadium is in its third incarnation, but it’s still considered a pilgrimage site for many fans across the game. Hell, even in Baltimore, Oriole Park at Camden Yards started the trend of retro-style ballparks that has continued to this day.
And then, there’s Tropicana Field, which some call a dump, some call a warehouse, and some optimists call “intimate”. No matter what you call it, the Rays have a problem with the Trop. It lacks the character of many of the other parks in the league, and is far and away the least spectacular park in the AL East. The issues with the Trop extend past its features, and its awful location has lead to the Rays simply not being able to draw – they only cleared the two million fan mark in 1998, their inaugural year in MLB. The last six years have been the best six years in Rays history, and they’ve never been able to crack into the top half of American League teams in attendance. Hell, they’ve finished last in the AL over the last two years despite winning 92 and 90 games.
That leads me into the second biggest weakness of the Rays – their lack of payroll flexibility. Prior to 2014, the Rays had a payroll of over $70 million just once under their current ownership group, and that came in 2010 when Tampa Bay’s payroll was at $72.8 million thanks to ugly contracts being paid to Carlos Pena and Pat Burrell. The next season, the Rays’ payroll cratered to $42.1 million, and they still made the playoffs. Obviously, the club can still compete with a smaller payroll, but having some more flexibility could help the Rays take the next step and win a pennant.
Those payroll constraints really keep the Rays from improving their team in the second half. Tampa Bay had plenty of issues with the production from their DHs in 2013, and Alfonso Soriano would have been a great fit at the trade deadline. Of course, the Rays can’t compete with the Yankees checkbook, and New York ate a nice chunk of Soriano’s contract to bring him to the Bronx. You know what happened after that – Soriano hit 17 homers in 58 games with the Yankees (though they didn’t make the playoffs), and the Rays started three different players at DH in five games, including Delmon Young three times.
That payroll situation once again drives home the point between the haves and the have nots in the AL East. The Red Sox and Yankees can spend money with reckless abandon. The Orioles and Blue Jays will open up their wallets when they feel the time is right. The Rays? Well, the Rays have to consciously keep an eye on every dollar they spend on payroll. Other teams barely blink at a contract like Pat Burrell’s two-year, $16 million disaster – for the Rays, it’s a critical burden that prevents them from making moves over the rest of the year, and that’s part of why this is such a huge weakness for them.