You may have noticed a few changes that have happened down in Tampa Bay. General Manager Andrew Friedman left the Rays to become President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers. Manager Joe Maddon quickly followed suit, opting out of his contract and signing with the Cubs. Before that, staff ace David Price was traded away to the Tigers. During this past off-season, 2013 Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, who the year before had been acquired in a trade with the Royals, was sent to the Padres. Versatile Ben Zorbrist and starting shortstop Yunel Escobar, who had just signed a 2-year contract extension last April, were shipped to the Athletics.
Among all these changes, or what you could call a mass exodus, you may have missed one little news item from this past December. In the middle of that month, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to reject the Rays stadium search deal. The deal would have allowed the Rays to search for a new stadium site outside of the city and in the nearby Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Interestingly, the Mayor of St. Petersburg had brokered the deal with the Rays that had the necessary five votes to pass the council. However during the council hearing, Rays president Brian Auld made the deliberate decision to refuse to yield any development rights on the current home field of the Rays, Tropicana Stadium. The seemingly designed ruse of Auld and the Rays organization has led to nothing more than this week’s council agreement that the Tampa Bay area should…have a baseball team. What city council in America wouldn’t want a baseball team?
It is well documented that Tropicana Stadium is an awful venue. Unfortunately the Rays organization signed a ridiculously long lease that doesn’t end until 2027. The lease is unlike a traditional agreement and is actually referred to as a “use agreement” in that it prevents the team from just picking up and leaving without incurring serious monetary setbacks. Just how serious these setbacks would be is unclear. On the face of it, the proposal to escape the “Juice Box” and find a new home in the area seems to be the Ray’s desire. Yet other evidence suggests the Rays may actually have a further end goal.
Rob Neyer, writing for Just a Bit Outside, recently posted an article that claimed that there was a strong correlation between fan attendance and fielding a competitive team. With evidence to support, he argues it isn’t the stadium, giant scoreboards, free giveaways or food choices that drive people to ballparks. It’s simply having a winner to cheer for. Under Maddon and Friedman, the Rays had been doing a lot of winning, however there weren’t many fans cheering, suggesting that the stadium was not the real issue for the Rays. After having six winning seasons out of the last seven years and drawing some of the lowest attendance numbers in the Majors, the Tampa Bay area may have proven itself to not even be a viable location for a baseball team. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has blatantly come out and said, “Major League Baseball no longer considers Tampa Bay as a baseball locale.”
With the mass exodus of players and personnel, the actions of Auld and the warnings of Sternberg, the intentions seem pretty clear. The Rays want out of the Tampa Bay area. The hold up of the “use agreement” leaves the team open to a suit from the city of St. Petersburg. Yet the systematic shedding of payroll, including both players and management, plus the backing of MLB, suggests that money may not be a problem if another city is viable to support a team.
One viable option could be Montreal. Yes, the same Montreal that up until 2004 had a baseball team, the Expos. And yes, the same Montreal that was averaging less than 10,000 fans per game in the last season of the Expos. Considering that Montreal is the 15th largest market in all of North America, it seems even new Commissioner Rob Manfred is on board. Manfred said back in January that “with the right set of circumstances and the right facility” Montreal is a possible candidate for a team. Manfred cited the two strong attendance showings from the exhibition games played last year as further evidence that Canada could have another organization besides the Blue Jays. Multiple studies also have shown that there is a financial ability to build a new stadium with much popular support.
According to La Press, a French-language newspaper, Montreal businesspeople had a few meetings with members of the Rays organization last spring. It also stated that local Montreal businesspeople expressed interest in ownership stakes. It seems that if Sternberg and the Rays did relocate, there would be monetary backing that could offset any damages inflicted from its use agreement with St. Petersburg. Not to mention a new ballpark and greater attendance. If the Rays did move to Montreal, they would have a natural division rival, the Blue Jays, as well as having the Yankees and Red Sox each playing at least 9 games there. Pretty solid organizations to come visit that often.
As of now, the only major contract left on the team is franchise player Evan Longoria. However, with a tradable, team friendly deal through 2023 and the absence of a no-trade clause, Longoria’s days seem numbered. In 2018, his 10 years of Major League service and at least 5 years with the same team kicks in an automatic no trade clause, therefore he should be gone sooner rather than later. Where will he end up? The guess here is the White Sox. Executive Vice President Kenny Williams has recently stated that the Sox organization expects to contend this year. After making headlines with all their off-season moves, he admitted, “there was still one more thing that really would have been nice.” After acquiring a strike out, groundball pitcher in Jeff Samardzija, the one defensive hole in the Sox infield is third base. A package of current third baseman Conor Gillaspie, who surprised with the bat last year, third base prospect Matt Davidson and a couple minor league pitchers might be enough to seal the deal.
As for the Rays moving to Montreal, the writing is on the wall. The Montreal Rays, however, doesn’t sound quite as good as the Montreal Expos.
Featured Image: Via USA Today