Since bringing in Lou Piniella, the Rays have had the three lowest payrolls of their eight-season history. They have the lowest in the majors again this season at about $28-million, well short of what he expected after they won a franchise-record 70 games last season and generated some excitement in the Tampa Bay market with a 12-game midseason winning streak.
His frustration has become increasingly obvious in recent days, and has sparked conversations among team observers about how much longer, at age 61, he can – or will – put up with it. After posting a .537 winning percentage (1,319-1,135) in his 16 seasons managing the Yankees, Reds and Mariners, he has a .409 mark (137-198) in two-plus seasons with the Rays.
He made a pointed payroll reference in postgame comments Saturday, cut short his pregame media session Sunday and, after the Red Sox completed the three-game sweep, snapped at a radio reporter’s question and used several curse words.
The players have noticed his frustration, too.
According to Aubrey Huff, the highest paid Ray and unofficial team leader, some share it.
“I’ve been here four years now and every year there’s a promise to spend more money and it just doesn’t happen,” Huff said. “It’s like okay, next year, next year, next year, and it just doesn’t seem to happen. I don’t know what the problem is. It just gets to the point where it gets a little frustrating. It really does.
“Everyone on this team is trying their a– off. We’re battling. We’re doing the best we can, trying as hard as we can. But what do you expect when you’ve got 35-year-old All-Stars playing against guys that just came up. The experience factor is always against us and the payroll factor is always against us. …
“I’m ready for a commitment to win here. That’s what I want to do now is win. I’ve been here too long to not see more improvement than we have. And, like Lou said, it does start in the front office.”
Piniella’s pregame comments came in response to a question about the negative attitude that appears to engulf the club. He said the reason was the lack of improvement the Rays made during the offseason.
“The problem is we didn’t do much over the winter, and that started the wheels in motion,” he said. “That’s why people talk that way. They were probably expecting us to go out and get a big this or a big that to keep things moving and we didn’t. …
“How do you stop it? You’ve got to win baseball games. That’s all. There’s no other way. You can talk about it any way you want to talk about it and you can paint any picture you want to paint. But the bottom line is you’ve got to get to .500, and a little above, and now things change.”
If Huff thinks fielding 35 year-old All-Stars is the answer, perhaps he should consider earlier Devil Rays rosters that included the likes of Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn. Or that there’s a team in the Bronx packed with All-Stars in their mid-to-late 30’s that has an identical record as Tampa.
Lou Piniella could have become manager of the New York Mets in 2003, but prefered to stay closer to home and help the wonderful people behind the Devil Rays develop their team. Assuming he still feels that was the right decision, perhaps the manager could offer to defer some of his $3 million salary so Vince Namioli and Chuck LaMarr can sign a 35 year old All-Star?