For all the quality teams they have put together over the last 16 seasons, thoroughly rewriting the franchise’s reputation after their turgid first decade, the Tampa Bay Rays have always operated under different terms to their peers. Be it necessary or self-inflicted, they do not spend the amount of player payroll normally seen in those amid pennant races. And they never have done.
Notwithstanding the fact that the three-decade long saga of the viability of Tropicana Field seems finally to be being resolved – with, it is hoped, expanded revenues down the road coming as a direct benefit of that – there is no evidence that this spendthrift nature will change any time soon. The Rays are at or near the very bottom of the MLB’s payroll charts, year on year on year. 2024 will be no different.
Spending can only come through cuts. Inevitably, then, their offseason plans will first focus on the few veterans on the roster who are earning more than what would be paid through minimum salaries based on service time, or received in their arbitration years. And with the Rays being one of the youngest teams in baseball as well as one of the best, it is surely no surprise that there are only eight – Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin, Manuel Margot, Brandon Lowe, Yandy Diaz, Jeffrey Springs, Pete Fairbanks and Wander Franco.
Diaz and Fairbanks are two of the game’s very best at what they do, and they both also represent bargains, having signed extensions the same weekend as each other back in January. Fairbanks signed a three year, $12 million extension with a $7 million option for a fourth season and incentives on top, while Diaz signed for three year and $24 million with a $12 million option in 2026, meaning that the Rays got MVP-calibre play from him for a mere $8 million in 2023. These deals are both steals, and while that is not to say that the pair are immune from being traded, it is to say that, should they be moved, the deals will not be primarily financially motivated.
Springs and Eflin, the other big-money recipients before last season began, should also be fine. While the second-place vote that he received in the Cy Young Award voting was perhaps ambitious, Eflin nevertheless returned a solid season as advertised in his first year with the team after signing for three years and $40 million (the biggest free agency deal in franchise history), demonstrating immaculate control on his way to a 1.02 WHIP across 177.2 innings. Springs meanwhile got hurt early, but when healthy, his exceptional unheralded talent is a bargain at the three years and $27 million he is set to earn over the next two seasons.
Spring’s injury will see him miss most if not all of next season, and the precedent for the Rays moving injured pitchers no matter how elite they are to save money was set last season with the dump of J.P. Feyereisen. Additionally, Franco’s situation remains completely up in the air as the investigations continue, and his future with the franchise – if any – is not in any way clear. Perhaps those two contracts will still be removed from the books in some way. But Eflin’s, surely, will not.
This, then, leaves Glasnow, Lowe and Margot. At a $25 million price tag next season and with a long injury history, it is all but already confirmed that Glasnow will be dealt. At $8.25 million and with injury history of his own, Lowe is not immune either – however, his power bat when healthy is hugely important and hard to replace, and to trade him now would be to trade him when his value is somewhat low.
The same low value, of course, will also be true of Margot. But there is not the same chance that he will ever now get beyond the layer of what he already is; outfield depth. And outfield depth for $10 million is not something the Rays can afford.
Acquired along with catching prospect Logan Driscoll before the start of the 2020 season in exchange only for Emilio Pagan, Margot has been a solid player for the Rays, contributing something in all areas of the game. Acquired to back up Kevin Kiermaier in centre field, he has instead played a lot of corner outfield, has some speed on the bases, and hits for a decent average, with a legacy of clutch hits on the way. Across his 320 games with the Rays, Margot has hit for a .264 average, to go with 19 home runs and 41 stolen bases, with a 96 OPS+ over that span that measures him out to be as-near-as-is average all around.
However, playing the corner outfield diminishes his defensive importance and puts adds focus on Margot’s abilities at the plate, where he is in danger of not ageing well. He has never been a power hitter, with only four home runs last season, while the walk rate has not grown to offset that. Also slowed by injury, he is merely a decent rather than a great baserunner, which further affects his defensive range, itself inhibited by a weak arm for the position. Compared to the cannons of Jose Siri and Josh Lowe, Margot is found wanting in that department, and if he is just a depth corner outfielder and occasional DH going forward, his increased cost becomes further problematic.
Imperfections aside, Margot remains a useful player. A singles hitter he may be, but he hits a good number of them, makes few errors on the bases and in the field, steals the occasional base, and brings no character concerns. His time with the Rays will end through circumstances and the passage of time rather than through anything he did. Such is the way of the contender on the shoestring.
Everything, good and bad, ends eventually. Margot’s tenure with the Rays will go down as a good one for all concerned. He is a decent Major League player who will have a trade market, reflecting his usefulness. But the levels of play and pay are not commensurate any longer. And the Rays have decided they cannot afford that.