Jonah Keri is a good writer. I've enjoyed his stuff for years and was intrigued by his announcement that he'd be publishing a book on the Tampa Bay Rays. That book, The Extra 2%, came out in March of this year.
Why do I bring this up? Since Jim Crane has professed an admiration for how the Rays run their show and that persistent rumors link the Rays' GM Andrew Friedman with Houston, I wanted to get a behind-the-scenes look at the organization through the book. It's a quick read, under 300 pages, and I'd recommend it to anyone who's following new trends in baseball.
I had lots to take away from the book, but I don't want to dump it all in one article, so I'm breaking this up into three different ones, each focusing on a different aspect of the book and how it relates to Houston. First up, we'll talk about both organizations, what the current Rays brain trust had to work with before they got there and what Houston looks like in comparison.
The Devil Rays were in bad shape.
I mean, bad, bad shape. Easiest joke in the league-type bad. I had forgotten this, but Torii Hunter even called the organization out, saying free agents wouldn't be caught dead signing there. That's a pretty steep hill to climb.
Specifically, though, what were the team's problems?
A bad owner: Vince Naimoli should be credited for helping land a baseball team in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, but he won no more friends after that. Brash, he alienated everyone, including writers in the press box. His conservative fiscal ways also led to many key corners getting cut and a laborious process for spending anything. The tone of the organization starts with the owner, and he set a terrible precedent.
Bad marketing: This was also on Naimoli, but he basically broke promises to many advertisers. He promised 3 million fans in the first year and they didn't come close to drawing that many. He was very combative about the use of the Devil Rays logo, even with some of his biggest sponsors. Oh, and he trained his ushers to be food nazis, taking out any outside food immediately.
A bad stadium: The Trop was built long before baseball was secured, so it didn't have many of the modern amenities teams rely upon. Also, Naimoni's budget didn't allow for much stadium maintenance, so things started breaking down quickly. It's telling that the new ownership group started pushing for a new stadium almost immediately after taking control, with the team barely 10 years old.
Bad management: Chuck LaMar may be a competent talent evaluator, but he made some bad trades and even worse signings. His problem, like the other things on this list, was Naimoli's micromanaging the budget. LaMar stayed on a good while longer than anyone expected, but his tenure in charge is not fondly remembered.
Terrible name/uniforms: Devil Rays just wasn't that marketable. Add in that awful rainbow logo and it was a hard team to sell on those points.
Poor attendance: Because of many of the reasons above, fans did not go to Tropicana Field. That's hard for a team building revenue to deal with. The Rays are still fighting this problem now, even though they have dramatically raised the stakes on things inside the organization.
Draft busts: Dewon Brazelton. Josh Hamilton (for TB). And on and on and on. Tampa Bay may have had a ton of high draft picks, but just like fellow cellar dwellers the Pirates, the Rays have had horrible luck picking those players. That led to a lack of truly superstar players for years.
Economic disparity: Tampa Bay had money problems. They couldn't draw any people to games, thus losing out on gate revenue. They don't have a regional sports network to bring in revenue like the Yankees or Red Sox. Their main source of income is the revenue sharing money from Major League Baseball. That means their payroll is always low and mistakes hurt them much more than the other big market teams.
The lone positive for the Devil Rays is that they had a growing farm system, just from drafting at the top of the first round so often. They also had some young talent already in the majors which helped solidify things.
Now that we know what the Rays looked like, let's turn those categories on Houston and see how it compares:
Owner: Drayton was not widely regarded with the same disdain that Vince Naimoli was, but it's largely because Drayton is a nice guy. He gets along with people, both in the media and in baseball. But, he's been just as damaging for the organization. Jim Crane is an unknown quantity and the only experience we have with him is that he's slashing the payroll and not firing Ed Wade. Not good signs.
Marketing: Houston can really use a lift here. I'm not criticizing their marketing, because a lot of the days and themes that happen throughout the year are spot-on. Those bobbleheads are cute and Minute Maid Park is fan friendly. However, they can definitely use help in the "outside food" area, something they are constantly dinged on by fans. They also have struggled with the seasonal marketing campaigns lately. "These are your Astros" just didn't do it for a lot of people.
Stadium: Here is a big plus for the Astros. Ten years later, Minute Maid Park is still a great venue for watching baseball. It's been maintained well and, while having quirky spots on the field, is a neat place to attend a game. Plus, all those suites should rake in revenue for the ownership.
Management: Tal Smith may be brilliant when it comes to arbitration, but his time in baseball may have passed. The organizational philosophy seems stuck in the past and Houston will need to move away from it (and possibly this management team) before it can hope to improve.
Unis: I'm on record as saying I'd like a return to the old color scheme, but the fact is the current uniforms and logo are fine. They're marketable, there are three different jerseys the team can sell and they're all in colors that are easily sold. So what if I mistook a Pirates player in pinstripes the other day for an Astro? They're still making money. Who needs uniqueness?
Attendance: After being in the top 10 in the National League in attendance every season, the Astros dropped down in 2010. They're still just at 11th this season, but may fail to draw 2 million fans for the first time since '96. If they average 20,000 fans on their last 16 home dates, they should get there, but it's going to be a close thing and will likely mean a drop of about 300,000 fans since last season and a million since 2007. As bad as all that is, Houston is still averaging more fans than Tampa Bay did in its most successful seasons. There could be improvement here, but it's not as dire as it seems from the plummeting numbers.
The draft: Things are starting to turn around here. We don't know about Jason Castro, but Jordan Lyles and J.D. Martinez are two recently drafted players in the majors already. George Springer should also move quickly through the ranks.
Economics: With a regional sports network set to come on line soon, Houston is doing pretty well. The only drawback will be the debt that Crane brings to the table. It's anyone's guess how that will affect the team in the long run, but this is a market that can sustain high payrolls if the team is winning.
The biggest problems for Houston are marketing and management. They have economic strength, a good fan base, more talent in the minor leagues and a marketable brand. Bringing in an owner who is more hands-off (like Crane may be) and getting a new, competent management team in place would go a long way to fixing those problems.
So, the situation in Houston seems much better than it was before. Any new GM coming into this must see the chance to have a successful setup with just a few tweaks to the front office experience. Reach out to fans a little more, win some games and people will star flooding back to MMP. That's got to be intriguing for potential GMs.
What do you think? I know people are down on the Astros franchise right now, but that's mainly the baseball side, right? If they fixed that, can this still be a first-class operation? What would you change about the fan experience?