By Jim Williams
Special to S.F. Examiner
With just three precious weeks to go in the 2019 baseball season, the American League wild card race seems to be between three teams: the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians.
The A’s and Rays, though, are a fascinating case study in small-market baseball. They’re the poster children for baseball on a budget. They may be just shy of 3,000 miles apart, but there are more similarities than differences between the two teams. Oakland and Tampa Bay have two of baseball’s lowest payrolls each year, and yet, they have found ways to win with some consistency. Both teams also enjoy great support on TV and radio where they have consistently strong ratings with their respective fan bases.
This winter, Major League Baseball will start the bidding war for the cable and streaming rights now held by TBS and ESPN respectively. With the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose television market being the eighth largest in the country and the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota market at No. 11, it’s important to Major League Baseball that they make the playoffs.
As of Friday, Fangraphs has the A’s with a 85.1% chance of being in the wild card game again this season, with the Rays having a 60.7% chance of taking the second wild card slot, and the Indians hanging around with a 55.3% chance of joining the postseason party. The major reason the A’s are in the driver’s seat to make it to the playoffs is in large part due to their schedule. They won’t face a team with a winning record the rest of the season, while both the Rays and the Indians will face some much tougher competition.
The AL Central race between Cleveland and Minnesota hardly excites the country. Both are Top 20 markets (Minnesota at No. 15, Cleveland at No. 19), but the race between the two hardly brings the “poor little city, small payroll” story to the country that an A’s vs the Rays wild card matchup does.
The defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox don’t look like they will make it to the postseason, and the big offseason signings of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado haven’t made the Phillies or the Padres into title contenders. Same goes for the Angels, who signed Mike Trout to a $400 million extension.
The national media looks at Oakland and Tampa Bay as poorly-run franchises that are constantly on relocation lists. Last winter, the headlines had the A’s headed to Portland while Major League Baseball was contemplating allowing the Rays to play a split schedule between St. Petersburg and Montreal.
But both Oakland and Tampa Bay have found a way to be contenders, year in and year out, without signing big name free agents. It is easy to root for the underdogs when the two have become known for their on-field innovation, shrewd scouting and player development, and a sometimes frustrating dedication to suppressing payroll.
But let’s be clear: As much as the national media complains about covering games at the Coliseum or Tropicana Field, Major League Baseball needs the two top media markets.
Having winning teams in Oakland and Tampa Bay playing in a wild card game would mean that one of them would crash the party against the big spenders group. Either Houston or New York would host either the A’s or the Rays in a made-for-TV, David vs. Goliath showdown that is sure to be a ratings winner.
It was just last year that MLB inked a new deal with Fox Sports that runs through the 2028 season for an estimated $5 billion, plus another three-year, $100-million-a-year deal from DAZN — a sports streaming service that offers nightly in-game highlights.
Joining ESPN and TBS at the rights bargaining table will be Amazon, Facebook, YouTube and others. Having winning teams in Oakland and Tampa Bay is likely to set off jaw-dropping rights deals.
That added revenue should not only help MLB as a whole, but certainly add value to the A’s and Rays. Right after the Fox and DAZN deals were done in 2018, Forbes tabbed the A’s franchise value at $1.10 billion, and Tampa Bay at $1.01 billion.
With a winning team and more cash from the league, it should help both franchises in finding the cash to support their new stadium efforts. Both have plans on the board to get something new built.
The A’s feel like they have a solid chance for the first time in a long time at a new home at Howard Terminal. While the proposed new waterfront ballpark seems to be gathering key support from both Oakland and Sacramento, there remains a long way to go before it becomes a reality.
Tampa Bay’s situation is more complicated, but they have options beyond a split season deal with Montreal. The key is winning, which is why the two bays are in many ways still linked in the eyes of MLB.
The 49ers remain on the road with a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff against Cincinnati on FOX 2. The broadcast team will be Thom Brennaman (play-by-play), Chris Spielman (analyst) and Shannon Spake (reporter).
KPIX CBS 5 will have the Raiders at home against the high-powered Chiefs in another AFC West showdown. The game gets the CBS lead broadcast crew of Jim Nantz (play-by-play), Tony Romo (analyst) and Tracy Wolfson (reporter). Also of note, KPIX will have their first postgame show of the season airing once the action is over.
Wild card chase baseball this week will see the A’s home Monday through Wednesday hosting the Royals, followed by a weekend series with the Rangers, with all the games on NBC SportsNet California, as well as the A’s radio network.