The human race spent millennia thinking of time as a constant, despite its own instincts. After all, any child on December 23, or any new parent at three in the morning, can testify to time’s pliancy. Even before relativity, people knew that life travels not in a smooth course but in fits and jumps. And yet years and hours continue to be counted arithmetically, as if they were all equal to each other.
The lies of baseball teams have always been evaluated on similar terms. Once past the awkward adolescence of expansion, most franchises behave like tides, pushing forward with young talent and supported by optimal free agency before age and expense act as the undertow. Few have escaped this rhythm, either existing above or below it: the Cardinals, the Rockies. The rest wait for the swell, sign some free agents, and hope it all works out. If not, there was nothing to do except wait for another wave. The Rays have done well to stay afloat during much of their second era, but even in 2015 there were signs that time was running out.
In this light it’s not unimaginable that the Rays would embark on what many considered the most ludicrous offseason since the days of Charlie Finley. After all, it’s not that teams haven’t played with the idea of contracts before; the Mets famously allowed Bobby Bonilla to live forever, while Tim Wakefield once froze time itself with his constant repeating contracts of the early aughts. What the team did wasn’t against the rules; it’s just that no one had tried it before.
Rays’ team president, and former general manager, Matthew Silverman, with the implicit support of majority shareholder Stuart Sternberg, has distorted time by pushing the franchise near a black hole. With attendance continuing to flag, a new stadium nowhere in sight, and a window that threatened to close with its core players entering arbitration, Silverman decided he could no longer afford to make another David Price trade and kick the can down the road. Nor could they afford a lengthy and costly rebuild. That left only one choice.
It wasn’t the decision to go all in on 2017 that shocked the punditry; that philosophy made sense. The Rays simply didn’t have very many chips to push forward. Injuries and a couple of poor drafts left the team with very little high-minors talent, with the exception of Opening Day starters Justin O’Conner at catcher, Daniel Robertson at shortstop, and lefty Blake Snell as swingman/Matt Moore insurance. With few prospects and a hamstrung budget, it appeared as though the Rays would be stuck slinging rocks at giants yet again.
Silverman found another solution, albeit the riskiest imaginable. He simply borrowed the money he needed—from himself.
The Rays signed three major free agents in the offseason: Adrian Beltre, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Reddick, for two, three, and four years respectively. But they’ll be earning paychecks from the organization for far longer than that.
Each of the players will make exactly five million dollars during each year of the tenure. The rest will be deferred until 2028, and then paid in annual installments for thirty years. The sum total of those three investments will cost the team, over the course of those three decades, a princely sum of $150 million, or about a quarter of the current value of the franchise.
Granted, it’s a humongous risk. The Bonilla and Bruce Sutter paycheck days have become almost a holiday on Twitter, jokes scattered about like parade confetti. And regardless of public opinion, the debts that the Rays have accumulated are by no means insubstantial. But the idea behind the moves is simple: that as the franchise approaches the end of its lease on Tropicana Field with the city of Tampa Bay in 2027, they’ll either be in a better position—or under different ownership. If it’s the former, and the team wins a trophy in the meantime, the delayed paychecks will be a reminder of a brilliant and unlikely maneuver that put a valiant but handicapped team over the top. And if it’s the latter, they’ll be nothing but lines in someone else’s budget.
So far, unfortunately, the strategy hasn’t quite paid off as well as anticipated. The Rays have spent the year hovering around .500, still easily within striking range of the postseason (they currently trail the Blue Jays by one game), but hardly comfortable. But it hasn’t been the veterans who have been the problem so far: all of the trio of Encarnacion, Beltre, and Reddick have done their share, each sporting true averages north of .275.
Instead, it’s been the rookies that have struggled. Justin O’Conner has drawn comparisons to Mike Zunino for his framing acumen and pitch calling, but also in his hitting approach. Through yesterday’s game O’Conner had hit a healthy eight home runs; unfortunately, he only has thirty other hits of any kind, meaning that the streak of sub-Mendozan Rays catchers may well continue this year. Meanwhile, Daniel Robertson is holding down shortstop for now, but his raw bat and limited range are tiring even the most ardent Tampa Bay fans. The shifting of Willy Adames, their current top prospect, to third base destroyed the anticipated overcrowding at the position before it could even start. How many days is it until Adrian Rondon anyway?
The Rays have gone to extreme lengths to slow down time. Ironically, the daring plan may have come too late: the latest wave of talent hasn’t performed like those of the past, in part due to some bad drafts and some worse luck. Still, there’s plenty of time for the Rays to turn things around, and gather their trophies when they may—for tomorrow they may be moving.
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