Turf Wars!

by Charles Parker on January 24, 2018

synthetic_vs_naturalThere are times when ownership and management end up at cross-purposes. It is entirely possible that the Texas Rangers franchise and ownership are experiencing it now.

The Rangers as a baseball team have well documented needs. The starting pitching being at the top of the list, but the farm system is bottom end loaded. That situation happened because the team was trying to win now every year since 2010. Seven years of trades to upgrade players in an attempt to find a piece or two that could put the team over the top have seen a multitude of potentially awesome players leave. The result is a host of different pitchers that are playing for someone else other than the Rangers, and those players should have been the Rangers future.

That win now mentality, combined with some playoff appearances, along with a couple of trips to the World Series helped promote passage of a bond package that Arlington residence loved and voted to approve for a brand new stadium. They loved it because the team has been successful, and they are tired of sweltering in the summer heat at the ballpark.

Jeff Wilson recently wrote an article on how ownership wants to consider artificial turf for the new stadium. You see management wants this to be an entertainment venue to make money year round, instead of just the 81 home games that the Rangers play each season. An entertainment venue could see year round revenue and ownership believes that making money is good.

As Wilson points out in his article, all you have to do is look at Toronto and the number of players that have no trade clauses to go there to see the effect of artificial turf on being able to attract players to your venue. Players have injury concerns with turf, and so prefer to play on grass. It is also clear, because baseball tracks every kind of statistics imaginable that players perform differently on one versus the other.

I get it! Management wants to make money and a new ballpark will generate excitement and put butts in seats no matter how the team performs. The more that attend games, the more money ownership will make, and that is a good thing!

The concern begins to arise when management starts looking at all of the different ways to make money through a venue. Management knows it will make money from a new stadium, and they know that the money will come regardless of the performance on the field as long as the team is not pitiful. To management that means we can invest less money in our entertainers if the results are going to be the same. Jerry Jones has mastered this with the Dallas Cowboys and AT&T Stadium.

Every major event in this part of the world takes place at JerryWorld. It is monstrous venue to hold concerts, sport events, and much more. As long as his Dallas Cowboys team can go 8-8, and he can cultivate the hopes and dreams of fans he fills the stadium. Jerry makes money, a lot of money from his team but more importantly from the venue. It is good for taxpayers in Arlington too, because of all that additional tax money generated. It is truly a win/win situation, except for on the field. There is no urgency to win it all, because from a revenue point of view a title is nice to have, but not necessary to put butts in seats, sell more tickets, or to provide fans with anything more than entertainment.

The Rangers ownership group knows Jerry Jones, and they have seen this model work. They assume that they can do this too!

I highly suspect that is why payroll was cut this year and they are not reinvesting that money into acquiring players that can take the team to the next level. After all why invest $100 million more to win, and make the playoffs, when we can still draw 2.5 million fans to see a mediocre team. If we cut the payroll now, can be close to a .500 ball club and reduce our expenses we will make even more money may be their thinking.

The Rangers payroll is down by about $45-$50 million this year from last year. To acquire top flight pitching, they could spend that with just two pitchers. Instead, they have chosen to go with some guys who are past their prime, and hope that they can get 75-80 wins from the team. That amount of wins is doable with what they have acquired. Ownership thinks that if the team can do better than that it is a bonus! If not, we still make money while we wait for the new ballpark to be completed.

Meanwhile, ownership will consider adding turf instead of grass because they figure they will sell out the stadium anyway, plus will make even more money off the venue. The revenue from the venue will meet or exceed the baseball profits they believe. As profits grow, they can invest less in the product on the field. In their minds, 8-8 is good enough for Jerry, it is good enough for us, and Cowboys fans still love the team.

There are some differences though, and ownership needs to think cautiously. Texas is a football state; Josh Hamilton was right about that. Small towns across this state still roll up the sidewalks on Friday night when the local team plays. Texans love the game, and support it in every way possible. Baseball is an acquired taste to many, and has not been America’s past time since the 1970’s. There are many of us who love the game and follow it still, but the numbers show that the fan base has dwindled due to the popularity of other sports. Players do not like turf, but that is one issue.

Another issue is that for years, the Rangers could not sign free agent pitchers because the perception of it being a hitter friendly ballpark, and players did not want to play in the Texas heat. When the team started winning that all changed, along with a structural modification of home plate that drastically cut the jet stream to right field. For the past half-decade, players have wanted to play in Texas because of the great clubhouse environment led by Adrian Beltre and to be with a winning organization.

If ownership wants a venue for entertainment to make a lot more money, they will get that. However, if ownership wants to follow Jerry Jones’s path, that might not be a good thing for baseball operations.

My contention is that ownership wants a team for less than $100 million in payroll, and their new ballpark. They are on the path to moving that direction, and all signs point to that. Can baseball teams win with that small of a payroll? Yes, but not consistently and all you need to do is look at the Oakland A’s to see that model.

The bottom line is that the reason that Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Andrew Cashner, Lance Lynn, or Alex Cobb, the top free agent starters on the market, have not already signed with the Rangers is money. Is the money not there because they do not see these guys as long term options for the club? Is it because ownership sees more money down the road without having to spend it now? Typically, in business you have to spend money to make money. They are spending money on a stadium, but not investing in the product on the field. Those are two issues are diametrically different things.

My take is that management wants to win, and if ownership would allow them, they would go buy the players they need. Conversely, ownership wants to make money, and they do not believe that spending money on free agents is going to add more money. When ownership and management disagree, ownership wins every time. After all, the people who write the payroll checks make the rules.

Laying down turf or grass is one of the last things done before the new ballpark actually opens. If turf is the final ownership choice then baseball will lose and it is all about the money. If they put down grass, that means that ownership wants to win baseball games! If they put down turf then it is all about the money and not about baseball.  Maybe I am wrong, but for a team with this much talent not to be in contention because they chose to sign pitchers past their prime instead of upgrading the talent shows all of those signs that I am right.

Turf or grass, when we see the final answer we will know if ownership cares about baseball.

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