Tampa Bay Rays
Previously known as Tampa Bay Devil Rays (Mar. 31, 1998-Nov. 7, 2007)
Franchise Record: (through 2019) 1,686-1,876 (.473)
Postseason Record: 13-17 (.433)
World Series Titles: 0
American League Pennants: 1 (2008)
The Tampa Bay Rays were created in the expansion of 1998 as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and finished last in AL East Division six consecutive years, from 1998 to 2003, and again from 2005 to 2007. Their luck changed when they changed their name before the 2008 season, when they went all the way to the World Series. The Rays play at Tropicana Field, the last remaining fully enclosed ballpark in the major leagues. A number of All-Stars and veterans have been among the Rays Managers and Coaches in their history.
The Devil Rays finished fourth in 2004 with 70 wins, the most in franchise history and their only non last-place finish under their original name. By the end of the 2007 season, they had the worst franchise winning percentage of all current teams. They also had the worst attendance in the American League each season from 2001 to 2005.
Their fortunes turned around dramatically at the time the team adopted its current name. Led by a core of youngsters including pitchers Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza, OF B.J. Upton, C Dioner Navarro and 3B Evan Longoria, the Rays suddenly emerged as one of baseball's best teams in 2008. They kept pace with the World Champion Boston Red Sox early in the season, and saw the New York Yankees progressively drop away from the race. They bested their previous team-high for wins by late August and outpaced the Red Sox down the stretch to win the AL East title outright and finish with the second-best record in the American League at 97-65.
In the ALDS, the Rays defeated the Chicago White Sox in four games thanks to strong pitching and power hitting by Longoria and Upton, then defeated the Red Sox in the ALCS with Garza winning two games, including the deciding 7th game, and the entire team continuing its hot hitting. However, the fairy tale came to an end in the 2008 World Series, as the Rays lost in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies. Still, the team had gone in one season from a laughingstock to one of baseball's best teams, with a core of young players promising more success in future years.
Indeed the Rays were able to maintain a strong level of play over the following few seasons. In spite of playing in perhaps the strongest division in Major League Baseball, they returned to the postseason in 2010, 2011 and 2013, under the leadership of manager Joe Maddon. However, they were only able to win one postseason series in that stretch, and that was the 2013 American League Wild Card Game, when they defeated the Cleveland Indians. While 3B Longoria and P Price were fixtures with the team during the whole 2008-2013 period, the team was characterized by an important turnover in personnel, with players being traded when they became too expensive, and often being replaced by other developed by the organization, or acquired before they had become established major leaguers. Home grown players included P Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb and OF Desmond Jennings, while youngsters who became regulars with the Rays included players such as OFs Matt Joyce and Wil Myers, IF/OF Ben Zobrist and P Chris Archer. Established players who left during the period included Ps Kazmir, Shields and Garza and OF Upton. Because of the constant turnover of players, analysts kept predicting a plunge to the bottom of the standings, but the Rays managed to stay competitive during the entire period, never finishing lower than 3rd, and with at least 90 wins in five of the six seasons (they got 84 in the other).
The 2014 season marked a turning point for the organization. Expecting to contend again, the Rays started the year playing .500 then went into a terrible slump in May and June, falling to 18 games below .500. However, they began to turn things around, and were approaching the break-even point at the trading deadline when they sent a message that they had no plan of competing for the postseason when they traded their ace, David Price, in return for youngsters. They still managed to make it to .500, albeit briefly, on August 15th, becoming only the fourth team in history to do so after having been as many as 18 games below .500. However, they couldn't stay there, and eventually ended up with their first losing season since they were the Devil Rays, back in 2007. Important changes followed after the season, as highly-respected GM Andrew Friedman, tired of working within a confined budget, left to accept the job of president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, while Maddon decided soon after to exercise an option to terminate his contract and was quickly hired by the Chicago Cubs. Replacing them were Matt Silverman, Friedman's long-time assistant, as GM, and Kevin Cash, a former back-up catcher with the Rays getting his first managerial opportunity at any level. The trades also continued, with long-time fixtures Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist, as well as Wil Myers, the Rookie of the Year two years earlier, all leaving town. The new team brass explained that there would need to be some rebuilding before the Rays would compete again, although their pipeline of young players was still strong.
Widely expected to fall to the bottom of the standings in 2015, the Rays once again managed to stay competitive, playing just below .500, with Chris Archer emerging as a pitching ace and CF Kevin Kiermaier as one of the top defensive players in the AL. They fell to 68 wins and a last-place finish in 2016, but managed to bounce back to 80 wins in 2017, making a run for the postseason, although it fell quite a bit short. However, when spring training started in 2018, long-time team icon Longoria had been traded - not necessarily a bad move, given he was getting on in years - and then in the first weeks of camp a veritable spring cleaning, with veterans Corey Dickerson, Jake Odorizzi and Steven Souza being traded. They were joined in late May by two more veterans, Denard Span and Alex Colome, who were also traded for prospects. In spite of this upheaval, Tampa Bay continued to exceed expectations by managing to play around .500, although this kept them far from postseason contention, and attendance at home games remained a huge problem. At the trading deadline, the Rays made a great trade, sending Archer to the Pittsburgh Pirates in return for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Chaz Roe and acquiring Tommy Pham from the St. Louis Cardinals. They had a great second half, finishing with 90 wins - one of the highest ever totals for a team missing the postseason, while Blake Snell won the Cy Young Award. It was also the year when they popularized the use of bullpen games with a lot of success. While they continued to make moves before the 2019, these were clearly aimed to improve the team even if they still eschewed large contracts and longer-term commitments. Building on their strong previous season, they started the season very strong, staying in lock-step with the first-place New York Yankees in the early going.
Chronic Ballpark Woes
The Rays' main problem has always been their ballpark, Tropicana Field. Built in the early 1990s based on a template from the previous decade, before the Tampa Bay area had a ball club in its sights, it was already outdated by the time it opened as a major league venue. Toronto's SkyDome had demonstrated that a retractable roof was the way to go in terms of protection from the weather, whereas Baltimore's Camden Yards brought in a wave of parks integrated into the downtown core of the city they served. Tropicana Field was none of this, modeled as it was on some of the least-liked ballparks in baseball history. The Rays always had difficulty attracting fans to the gloomy and unattractive ballpark, even when they were consistent winners, but attempts to find another home in the metropolitan area were stymied by a punitive lease, and difficulties in getting the various cities of the region to agree to work towards a common goal. As a result, by the mid 2010s, with their in-state rivals the Miami Marlins having gained a bit of more solid footing in their new downtown ballpark, the Rays were universally regarded as the weakest franchise in the majors, with some even whispering that the end-result could well be relocation if no solution was found in a reasonable time span.
A tentative first step in finding a solution was achieved on January 14, 2016, when the St. Petersburg city council finally relented and in a 5-3 vote, allowed the team to explore potential venues outside of the city, including in rival Tampa, FL. Until then, the council had prevented such moves, invoking the lease the team had signed with the city lasting until 2027. However, they had to relent when it became clear that it was impossible to find another suitable site for a ballpark in St. Petersburg itself, and that a continued holdout might well lead the team to leave Florida altogether. However, there was no further advancement in the following months, and during a visit to Tropicana Field on August 23, 2017, Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed Major League Baseball's frustration over the slow pace of progress. In spite of having a competitive team in the hunt for a postseason slot that year, the Rays were averaging only 15,800 fans per game, just a little over half the average major league attendance of 30,470, and the smallest crowd since 2006, numbering 8,264, showed up for the game Manfred attended. On February 8, 2018, some good news finally emerged when the team announced it had identified a suitable site in Ybor City, a historic neighborhood of Tampa. There were still a number of steps to complete before construction could begin, including securing financing, but there was finally a concrete project on the table. However, no less a figure than Evan Longoria, one of the players most associated with the team, stated in May 2018 that it might be best to simply move the team to another location, pointing out that building a new ballpark in nearby Miami, FL had not resolved the Miami Marlins' chronic woes. That July, the team unveiled plans to build the smallest ballpark in the majors on the new site, with 28,000 seats and a total capacity just over 30,000, at a cost of $892 million. There was no financing plan in place, making many wonder whether this was little more than a trial balloon. Indeed on December 11th, the Rays had to concede that this plan was no longer viable due to financial and logistical hurdles, and that it was back to the drawing board. The city of St. Petersburg had given the team a three-year window to explore options in nearby cities, and that was about to expire as well, leaving the team's future very much in doubt. Even owner Stuart Sternberg conceded that the team was now "down to its third strike". On December 18th, the Rays advised the city of St. Petersburg that they were putting an end to efforts to seek a new ballpark site outside the city. However, given the failure of earlier efforts to find an appropriate site in St. Pete itself, no one was optimistic about the next phase.
In February 2019, newspapers in Montreal, QC reported that a prospective ownership group there, led by Stephen Bronfman, was interested in an interim solution that would see the Rays play part of their schedule in Montreal, and the remainder at the Tropicana Dome. This would have the advantage of boosting attendance while not breaking the punitive lease that runs until 2027. It would also allow owner Stuart Sternberg to launch profitable commercial development projects on the site of the dome during the time he remains the principal lease-holder, thus recouping some of his financial losses. In June, ESPN confirmed that the Rays had received permission from the Commissioner's office to explore this option further. Owner Sternberg explained in a press conference on June 25th that he was not looking to sell or move the team, but that the lack of fans and revenue in Tampa had put him in an untenable situation.
- Vincent Brousseau-Pouliot, Denis Lessard and Alexandre Pratt: "Retour des Expos: nos Z'Amours à temps partiel ?", La Presse, February 22, 2019. 
- Bill Chastain: "Rays want to build new ballpark in Tampa: Sternberg: 'We're eager to work cooperatively to make this vision come to life'", mlb.com, February 9, 2018. 
- Joe Frisaro: "Rays cleared to explore stadium locations in area", mlb.com, January 14, 2016. 
- Steve Gardner: "Rays unveil plans to build smallest stadium in baseball to replace Tropicana Field", USA Today Sports, July 10, 2018. 
- Jonah Keri: The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, ESPN Books, Random House, New York, NY, 2011. ISBN 978-0345517654
- Gabe Lacques: "Rays' Montreal play has huge ripples - and likely means end of MLB in Tampa Bay", USA Today, June 20, 2019. 
- Gabe Lacques: "The Tampa Bay-Montreal Rays? MLB stars say such a life would be 'impossible'", USA Today, July 9, 2019. 
- Marc Topkin: "Evan Longoria: Rays might be better off leaving Tampa Bay", Tampa Bay Times, May 11, 2018. 
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