After three years of global scouting aimed at assembling teams that will begin play in April, after scouring ballparks from Adelaide to Anaheim, from Caracas to Cleveland, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays learn today which players will be available in next Tuesday's expansion draft.
The 28 other teams must submit their 15-player protected lists today by 11 a.m. PST but expansion history has taught the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays that they are not likely to find the nucleus of a competitive team in the draft.
Trades, free-agent signings and scouting and development are essential in both the long and short term, particularly if the new teams are to reach the playoffs after three years, as the Colorado Rockies did, or win the World Series after five, as the Florida Marlins did.
Expansion history may also document that no two teams have been better prepared to make an immediate impact--from their three years of scouting and development to their significant financial resources, which could allow them to pay higher-salaried veterans left unprotected in the draft or big-name players who have filed for free agency.
"I think we're all a little wary, and worried about how much those two teams might spend," one National League general manager said.
"They've already created havoc in the amateur market, and it might not stop there, considering their fan and revenue base."
Both the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays will come in among baseball's top five or six revenue producers.
The Diamondbacks have sold 33,000 season tickets and 90% of the available 69 luxury boxes for their first season in the 48,000 seat Bank One Ballpark and are guaranteed $400 million in long-term advertising revenue.
The Devil Rays have sold 23,000 season tickets and all 60 luxury boxes for their first season at 45,000 seat Tropicana Field, the former Suncoast Dome.
Neither team hesitated in blowing the lid off the amateur market when rule violations enabled four of the top prospects in the 1996 draft to become free agents.
The Diamondbacks signed Travis Lee, a college first baseman, for $10 million, and John Patterson, a high school pitcher, for $6.075 million, then spent $3 million on Cuban pitchers Vladimir Nunez and Larry Rodriguez.
The Devil Rays signed high school pitchers Matt White and Bobby Seay for $10 million and $3 million, respectively, and a year later signed Cuban ace Rolando Arrojo for $7 million.
No apologies and no definitive word from either team as to whether they will now hit the draft and free agency with open checkbooks, although Devil Ray owner Vince Naimoli, at a recent owners' meeting in Atlanta, said that he and Arizona owner Jerry Colangelo have warned the other owners that "they shouldn't expect to put their big-money guys out there and have them stay out there."
The inference is that if the Atlanta Braves, for instance, leave Fred McGriff unprotected, or the Marlins do not protect Bobby Bonilla or Al Leiter, or the Houston Astros do not protect Derek Bell or the Dodgers take a gamble and leave Eric Karros, Ramon Martinez or both unprotected, the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays will not be dissuaded by their salaries.
Both teams are prepared to spend and will. The questions are: How much and how soon?
"I don't think there's any way to develop a championship caliber team or even a .500 team without [taking advantage of] free agency," Tampa Bay General Manager Chuck LaMar said. "It's safe to say that the Rockies wouldn't have reached the playoffs in three years and the Marlins wouldn't have won a World Series in five without free agency. No matter how good the draft is and how well you've prepared, it's only a small part in the development of a team. You're not going to come out of it with a championship or competitive team."
The Diamondbacks and Devil Rays will each draft 35 players, and the 28 old teams will each lose two players, some three.
The expansion franchises cost their ownership groups $130 million each.
LaMar, a former executive with the Braves, estimated that Naimoli and partners will have spent $200 million by opening day. Thus, he said, from a business standpoint, steady growth would seem to make more sense than an erratic course of wild spending.
"If you're going to have a $30-million to $35-million payroll off the bat, then you have to be prepared for it go to $40 million the next year," he said. "It's tempting, but I'm not sure it's the right course.
"I mean, we'd love to have our cake and eat it too, but there's a fine line. The long-term goal is to be competitive year after year. The only way to build for the long term is through scouting and development, producing a steady flow of players through the system.
"If we can be competitive quickly without sacrificing development and our long-term goals, we will. But we've basically followed a conservative course, except in the two or three instances when we've had the opportunity to sign a player with impact potential."