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09/29/08 2:28 PM EST

Rays beat behemoths with patient plan

Club has unprecedented success with second-lowest payroll

If the Rays had three times the payroll, they might be the Red Sox. Then again, if they were the Red Sox, they'd have finished in second place.

After an amazing six-month campaign, some of the wow factor may be fading from Tampa Bay's accomplishment. It's not new anymore, so we've all kind of gotten used to it -- well, everyone but the Yankees, who aren't used to setting tee times quite so early. But what the Rays have done isn't just historic. In some ways, it's unprecedented.

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The Rays are the 13th team in the Wild Card era to make the playoffs with a payroll that ranked among the bottom third in the game. But they're the first team in that time to make it with a payroll that's less than one-half of the Major League average.

And they're quite certainly the first team to do it in the same division with a team that has a payroll four times as large. The Rays spent about $44 million on players this year; the Yankees spent more than that on the left side of their infield.

Seventeen years ago, they might have been the Atlanta Braves, rising from worst to first -- but baseball's economy didn't quite put up the same roadblocks to the chasers back in 1991. It's easy to compare them to more recent vintages of the Twins or the A's, but even those teams never did quite what this year's Tampa Bay team has done.

In what may have been the toughest division assembled in the 40 seasons of division play, the Rays roared from 30 games under .500 and last place to beat out the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays and Orioles. The team with the second-smallest payroll in the Majors outpaced the two biggest behemoths in the game, and triumphed over four teams that could all reasonably call themselves big-market clubs.

They did it not by dogma, but by smarts. Like the Red Sox, the Rays don't cling to one way of doing business. They're not a "Moneyball" team, whatever oversimplified view of that term one may take. But neither are they anti-analysis. Like the smartest clubs around -- such as the Red Sox and the Indians, among others -- they blend it all together.

Also like the Red Sox, the goal is not a one-time deal. It's all about sustainability.

"We've got a tremendous nucleus of players on the field, and it's important to keep these guys playing together for a long period of time," Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, said when the club signed ace Scott Kazmir to a long-term contract. "Our goal is not to get to October for one season. It's to be able to sustain it year over year."

Bang for the buck
In the Wild Card era, 13 teams have made the postseason while ranking in the bottom third in the Majors in payroll.
ML avg payroll
Pct of ML avg
* - Rank out of 28 Major League teams
(Payroll data from USA Today)

Do not sell short just what this team has done, not merely in the context of payrolls. Any AL East champion this year goes into October as a favorite, considering that the five teams finished a combined 61 games over .500 and had outscored opponents by well more than 300 runs.

Either the Yankees or the Blue Jays might be the best team in three of the other five divisions, never mind the Red Sox. Triumphing over those four teams was not simply a matter of the little guys winning -- it was a major victory in itself.

If you looked carefully, you could have seen some of this coming. Not all of it, but some of it. An already interesting team made some very shrewd moves over the winter -- and even starting last summer. Recognizing the need for defensive upgrades, the Rays remade their infield with the addition of Jason Bartlett and the emergence of Evan Longoria.

They also shored up what was an awful bullpen in a variety of ways, both from within and without. They didn't overspend on big-name relievers, instead quietly signing Troy Percival to a reasonable two-year deal while building the pen in other ways as well. Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler were acquired last summer, while youngster J.P. Howell blossomed into a quality reliever.

Opening Day payrolls
AL East
Yankees $209 million
Red Sox $133 million
Blue Jays $98 million
Orioles $67 million
Rays $44 million
The same philosophy applied on the offensive side. Step one, let the kids develop. See Longoria, Evan. Two, make some sensible additions through trade, such as Gabe Gross. Three, sign the right free agent or two to provide production and presence. In this case, it's Cliff Floyd.

Unlike some smaller-budget teams, this one didn't just run with the kids and do nothing else. They made a sincere attempt to acquire Jason Bay at the trade deadline, and though it fell through, the efforts were indicative of a team trying to win big.

In that regard, they differed from another smaller-market club, the Twins. Minnesota has consistently shown patience almost to a fault, though the two clubs did execute a key trade this winter -- with Bartlett and Matt Garza going to Tampa Bay for Delmon Young.

Then there are the Brewers, who took it to the opposite extreme. Milwaukee identified that its window may be closing this year, and went for it to a drastic degree. The Brewers sent top prospect Matt LaPorta to Cleveland for CC Sabathia, identifying 2008 as the priority above future years.

But Tampa Bay walked a line between the two extremes. The Rays were willing to make moves for 2008, but not at the expense of long-term viability. It was a very difficult balance, but it's what any team on a budget should aspire to.

Lowest payrolls in MLB
Marlins $22 million
Rays $44 million
Athletics $48 million
Pirates $49 million
Nationals $55 million
Twins $57 million
Royals $58 million
Moreover, under the current front office, there has never been a goal of winning 70 or 80 games. The goal was to build a legitimately good team. And if that meant painful seasons in the interim, well, it's not ideal, but so be it.

"The team has answered the bell, I think, in a dramatic fashion," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said a couple of months ago. "As the owner, I'm doing everything possible within my small powers to give us the greatest opportunity to continue this."

He's certainly done that. The ownership and management of the Rays are among the sharpest groups in the game, and they have done what seemed impossible. Now their team will try to take the next step, turning regular season success into a deep October run.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Brittany Ghiroli contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.