WASHINGTON — There was a lot of talk specific to the Rays at the All-Star Game last week, from commissioner Rob Manfred's strong endorsement of the Ybor stadium plan to Wilson Ramos' rousing ovation from the Washington fans to Blake Snell's impressive work on the mound. And there also sure seemed to be a lot of talk about the Rays, not necessarily by name, but on the things they (and, to be fair, other teams) do, like shifting, using game "openers" and shuttling players to the minors, and don't do, like adding top-shelf players and spending big bucks. Most of those words came from players union chief Tony Clark and Manfred. Here are some of the more interesting excerpts:
Whatcha got in the tank?
Remember all the winter and spring talk of teams such as the Rays "tanking?" Clark avoided using that word, as well as acknowledging the standings, but noted how teams are making roster decisions based on their chances to win rather than just trying hard and going all in. His issue? Teams using "predictive analytics" in "making decisions against the backdrop of what their roster is going to yield and the landing place of where their team is going to be at the end of the year, that those data points suggest if you're not in a particular place that it may make more sense not to look to be the last team standing.'' He said that can manifest itself in teams unloading players (specifically at the upcoming July 31 trade deadline, which they'll be watching) or failing to add to its roster, noting the distinct separation this year between the really good and really bad teams.
Shifty business, other data-driven changes
In the framework of "the way the game is being played on the field" being less fun for fans to watch and players to play with fewer balls put in play due to the shift and other changes like excessive matchup-driven moves, Manfred sounded ready to take action, and also in speeding up pace of play (code for pitch clocks). He called the shifts and other moves "organic changes" and acknowledged they "are being driven by smart people who want to win more baseball games,'' but said those competitive drives may have to be "bridled a bit" with rules to "manage" the maneuvers. He said there is an "existing consensus" among owners — hmm, wonder where the Rays Stuart Sternberg sits — "that we need to have a really serious conversation about making some changes to the way the game is being played.'' Clark, an ex-player, said data has always been used to benefit team and individuals strategically, but is concerned about the balance, "whether to what extent what we are seeing how the game is played now, what appears to be valued by the evaluators, is in the best interest of the game.'' Clark also acknowledged teams are working hard for the right reason to find these potential advantages, the "secret sauce that may help them win the game that night.''
For openers …
Clark's concern isn't necessarily how the Rays are leading the way in using pitchers in newly created roles, but the impact on how those pitchers eventually will get paid for doing so: "The economic structure and system that's in place understands and appreciates, and has appreciated, the game being a certain way, and certain valuations and considerations tied to it. If all those are going to change then we have a far more significant conversation that needs to be had.'' FWIW, he seems more interested in if it spreads widely from the Rays to other teams, "if it becomes the norm rather than the exception.''
Money for nothing
Manfred was fired up in defending teams that keep their spending down, noting the correlation between high payrolls and winning is "extraordinarily weak" and that a number of low-payroll teams, which would include the Rays, have found ways to be successful. "Falling into this notion that payroll is a measure of whether an owner is trying to win,'' he said, "is literally sophistry.''
Hey friends, can you spare $45 million?
Clark noted that revenue sharing was implemented to help teams with less wherewithal compete more evenly with those with more, the system "predicated on the integrity of competition" on the field, which is unquestioned, but also "the decision making surrounding the industry as a whole and individual team decisions." Thus, based on what they're seeing (and filed a still-in-the-process grievance against the Rays, A's, Marlins and Pirates for), he ominously said, "we have to question why we're taking money from certain clubs and moving it to other clubs where by there is a question as to whether or not they're using it to improve the team on the field.''
A not-so-minor matter
Whether it's keeping players in the minors to get past the Super 2 arbitration date or shuffling the bullpen, Clark said "roster manipulation" is near or at the top of the list of union concerns, "watching how teams are moving players in and out and how that affects their service time clock.''
• Manfred's vote of confidence in Sternberg's ability to get the Ybor City stadium deal done aside, other baseball people are less confident and curious what the end game is. Mitigating is Manfred's increasing public push to get on with expansion (and resulting realignment), going as far in an FS1 interview to list these "viable" candidates: "Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville in the United States, certainly Montreal, maybe Vancouver, in Canada. We think there's places in Mexico we could go over the long haul." Resolving the Rays', and A's, future first is essential.
• Adeiny Hechavarria is finally going to get traded at some point, right?
Our guess at the Rays most likely to be traded by the July 31 deadline, with obvious No. 1 C Wilson Ramos and RHP Chaz Roe now sidelined by injury:
1. RHP Nathan Eovaldi
2. SS A. Hechavarria
3. RHP Sergio Romo
4. RHP Chris Archer
5. RHP Matt Andriese
6. LHP J. Venters (DL)
Other possibilities: OF Carlos Gomez, 3B Matt Duffy, DH/1B C.J. Cron
ESPN's Keith Law had five Rays in his midseason top 50 prospect rankings, and immense praise for No. 17 SS Wander Franco, the 17-year-old signed last July hitting .384 with a 1.070 OPS at advanced rookie Princeton: "If you're looking for the next Vlad Jr. who's going to be in the No. 1 overall discussion and might see the majors before he turns 20, this is your guy.'' Also ranked: LHP/1B Brendan McKay (16), INF Willy Adames (27), Tommy John-rehabbing RHP Brent Honeywell (41), top draft pick LHP Matt Liberatore (45). … Baseball America, with more liberal rules, has eight Rays in its midseason top 100: Adames (9), Honeywell (16), Franco (26, up from 79), 1B Jake Bauers (34), McKay (38), OF Jesus Sanchez (44), Liberatore (80), C Ronaldo Hernandez (86).
LHP Blake Snell ranked 35th on fangraphs.com's MLB-wide list of most valuable trade assets based on performance and contract terms. (Cleveland INF Jose Ramirez was No. 1.) … Rays officials must have put a lot into Papa John's post-scandal corporate changes to so quickly reverse their suspension of the popular discount pizza promotion. … Interesting that the Rays slid radio broadcasters Andy Freed and Dave Wills over to the TV booth to fill in this weekend for Dewayne Staats, who was scheduled off. Hmm. … The Tigers putting RHP Michael Fulmer on the DL should increase the trade market for Eovaldi and Archer. … The Tampa Bay Times is running another contest to spend a game day at work with me (yes, that's first prize); see bit.ly/rayscontest or text 95999, using keyword TBT. … Rays games on Fox Sports Sun were top watched among all prime-time cable programming in the Tampa Bay market to the break and No. 3 among all networks, per Fox, though their 2.24 rating is 23rd overall. … Ex-Ray Chris Gimenez, now with the Cubs' Triple-A team, seemed a good catching option. … The union grievance vs. the Rays and three others is headed for settlement or a hearing before year's end. … Wouldn't be a surprise for teams to be checking players' Twitter accounts more vigilantly after the resurfacing of Brewers All-Star Josh Hader's 2011-12 offensive tweets. … DFA-ing OF Johnny Field rather than a pitcher seemed surprising, but it may be that the Rays felt better about getting him through waivers.