Recently, I wrote an article showing the odds of a team making the MLB playoffs based on how many games out of first place the team stood at the All-Star break. As we approach the trade deadline, these numbers become more and more daunting. Teams even a few games off the pace may very well be too far out at this stage to consider a blockbuster trade and a run at the playoffs. Beyond The Boxscore took this concept one step further, running a great article outlining each team's playoffs odds, and how much those odds would change based on player win values added or subtracted via trade.
Two teams that face huge dilemmas are two Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays. The Marlins sit 3 1/2 games behind in the Wild Card chase, 6 1/2 out of first place (with a -12 run differential suggesting they might be playing over their heads). Meanwhile, the Rays trail the Red Sox by four games in the Wild Card hunt, the Yankees by 6 1/2 in the AL East, and play a brutal schedule down the stretch.
The Rays in particular have been, perhaps a bit surprisingly, the subject of some of baseball's most intriguing trade rumors in the past couple weeks. Big names like Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and even Roy Halladay have been mentioned as at least possible trade targets. In either team's case, acquiring a player of that caliber could give them a very good chance to close the gap enough where a little luck here or there might net a playoff berth.
The big, glaring problem for both Florida teams (and many others) is cash. The Rays have seen one of the biggest increases in attendance in all of baseball this year – yet they still rank in the lower half of teams for attendance. For Owner Stuart Sternberg and company, even a couple million dollars in extra revenue would make a big difference in deciding whether or not to roll the dice on a big trade.
As luck would have it, the Rays open a three-game series tonight against the New York Yankees. The Yankees hold their spring training just across the bridge in Tampa, and have a huge local following. So whenever the team comes to St. Pete, you can expect tens of thousands of Yankees fans to follow. Generally speaking, this is a good thing for the Rays. The franchise is just now entering its second decade of existence. There will come a time at which a generation of young fans will come of age having followed the Rays all their lives. They'll have the buying power and the will to pack the stadium, especially if there's a good product on the field. For now, though, having swarms of Yankees or Red Sox fans descend on the Trop is a necessary evil. Collect the revenue, then try to drown out the other guys with louder cheering.
Let's go back to the place in the standings vs. playoff expectations discussion. If the Rays sweep the Yankees these next three days, they'll give their playoff odds a boost and generate enthusiasm in the area that could jumpstart an attendance push for the rest of the season. But let's say the Rays win two of three against the Yankees – still a very good result. Meanwhile, the Red Sox also hold serve, winning two out of three against the A's. That leaves the Rays still four games out in their playoff run, but three days closer to the end of the season. Tough call.
Now here's where things get interesting. Say you're a Yankees fan living in the Tampa/St. Pete area. You're understandably concerned that the talented, young Rays could pose a serious threat down the stretch, and possibly in the playoffs, if they add a player like Cliff Lee to a nucleus that already includes the likes of Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, James Shields and J.P. Howell. What if every local Yankees fan decided to stay away from the Trop, and watch the game at home or at the local bar instead?
Let's do some back-of-the-napkin math here:
50,000 fans staying away over three days x $20 per ticket + $20 for parking, concessions and miscellaneous ($40 all told per person) = $2 million
Cliff Lee's approximate salary, July 31 to the end of the season = $2 million
Even if the Rays sweep the Yankees, losing $2 million in expected revenue at such a critical juncture of the season could have devastating effects. Not only would it harm the bottom line now, it would also raise serious doubts about whether the Rays could draw fans for, say, a random Monday matinee against the Royals. Without that revenue stream, making an impact trade at the deadline becomes a much less palatable risk to take.
In real life, you can't expect a group of 50,000 to suddenly mobilize against a rival team in this way. But if I were a Yankees fan living in the Tampa/St. Pete area, I would have started organizing this effort months ago. Stay away from the ballpark, and you could do as much to hurt a rival's playoff chances as 10 Mark Teixiera homers could.
(Note: I'm backing the Rays this year, and sincerely hope they sell out all three Yankees games and go on to postseason glory. This exercise just illustrates how fragile such teams' playoff chances are, even when loaded with on- and off-field talent.)