The Houston Rays?

added 8/14/2011 by Bob Hulsey

While we continue the interminable wait for the Astros sale to become official, rumors have emerged that the 2012 payroll may be slashed yet again, this tme from $60 million to $50 million. Next year's roster may consist of Carlos Lee ($19 million), Brandon Lyon ($5.5 million), Brett Myers ($12 million) and 22 players willing to work for the federal minimum wage.

It suddenly makes sense for the Astros to simply hand Wandy Rodriguez' contract to whichever team claims him on waivers and get nothing in return rather than to cough up some part of his contract that would surely be sent if any type of trade is arranged. It shows how crazy the Astros situation is to seriously consider surrendering a perfectly good starting pitcher with a not-insane contract just to make next year's budget work.

It's been widely circulated that the Astros are headed to the American League (some say the fix is already in) and that incoming owner Jim Crane would pursue Tampa Bay General Manager Andrew Friedman who has done wonders with the low-budget Rays in the same division with baseball's Rockefellers, the Yankees and Red Sox.

Despite Friedman's success, the Tampa market has had difficulty supporting the Rays. A stadium deal collapsed and it remains a real question whether the Rays can remain in that area. Houston, meanwhile, is a large media market that has shown recently they can pack three million at Minute Maid Park when there's a winning product on the field.

In short, Houston needs a team and the Rays need a fan base. Why not consolidate?

It's become increasingly clear that Jim Crane can't afford the Astros he's about to buy. And wouldn't Stuart Sternberg, the majority owner of the Rays, love to have his team in a city that can support and sustain winners?

Bringing the Rays to Houston and contracting the Astros (and one other team) would solve a lot of problems for Major League Baseball that they presently face.

I realize the players union would never accept the loss of 50 big league jobs and countless other ones as it trickles through the minors but it makes sense in a declining economy. There's a lot of other industries that are downsizing. Why should baseball be immune? Perhaps, with enough concessions, the union may relent in the interest of the greater good.

The switch would put Houston in the American League where it can satiate Nolan Ryan's lust for an inter-Texas rivalry.

Many teams have new stadium deals that must be paid off. The Miami Marlins (in a new covered stadium on the grounds of the old Orange Bowl) are the latest, which is why they would not be the best candidate for contraction despite the majors' lowest attendance.

The most likely contractee would be the Oakland A's. They are in an old stadium. They want to move to San Jose but the Giants won't let them. Like the Astros, they have no major stars so it wouldn't be too disruptive to the balance of power to dissolve their roster.

Much as Crane's group would be allowed to own a stake in the Rays for agreeing to have the Astros contracted, the A's ownership could be allowed to buy the Dodgers franchise once MLB gets it away from Frank McCourt and the debts have been assigned. Then, MLB can appear to be much healthier and more financially stable while minimizing aggrieved parties who could take legal action.

This does leave a 15-13 imbalance in the two leagues so, for this example, let's move the Marlins to the American League where it will be the new home of snowbird Yankee and Red Sox fans which could boost their lagging attendance.

With two 14-team leagues, you can break them both back into two divisions of seven teams without the constant need for interleague play. Take two division winners and two wild-cards in each league and you have your post-season set up.

Here's how the new alignment might look:

American League East
Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Miami Marlins
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays

American League West
Chicago White Sox
Houston Rays
Kansas City Royals
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Minnesota Twins
Seattle Mariners
Texas Rangers

National League East
Atlanta Braves
Cincinnati Reds
Milwaukee Brewers
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates
Washington Nationals

National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks
Chicago Cubs
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals

All the eastern division teams are in the Eastern time zone, other than Milwaukee but they are sacrificed in order to keep the Cubs and Cardinals together. All the western division teams are in the Central, Mountain or Pacific time zones. In addition, every division has at least one warm-weather site and one covered roof site that can be used as the designated neutral site for prolonged snow outs or natural disasters.

The Rays' remaining lease at Tropicana Field would need to be bought out but the cost should be covered in whatever settlement happens between the Rays and the Cranes. Between the two groups, there ought to be enough money to put a quality product on the field in the country's fourth largest city.

Some similar arrangement can be done for the A's and the players in the Oakland and Astros systems can be made available in a disbursement draft (in the same order as the June amateur draft) or turned into free agents as an appeasement to the union.

Would such a move make me happy? No. I'm not an American League fan with their Arenaball rules but Houston fans would at least be able to watch competitive baseball the next few years instead of the 100-loss low-budget b-movie nightmare that looks to be coming our way.

Imagine how good the Rays could be if they could actually afford to keep some of their young stars instead of having to lose them as soon as they want a reasonable salary.

The Astros' name and logos can be retired in the memory of baseball fans, a testament to the pitching-and-defense days of the Astrodome and the great careers of players like Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, Oswalt and older greats like Wynn, Dierker, Cedeno, Cruz, Scott and Richard.

Perhaps reading this weekend that the Texas A&M Aggies are moving to the SEC has got the old realignment juices flowing but the suggestions here would help MLB out of several problems. Getting Friedman for Houston would be a good move for Crane. But why stop there? Why not get a whole franchise to replace the AAA one he has now? Is minority ownership of a good team preferable to majority ownership of an historically bad team?