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01/30/09 1:08 PM EST

Rays taking a step forward with payroll

Estimated $60 million budget shows club's commitment to winning

ST. PETERSBURG -- Sports Illustrated's Oct. 7, 1968, cover showed St. Louis Cardinals players wearing street clothes and sitting next to their lockers with a caption that read: "The Highest Paid Team in Baseball History."

The price tag for the nine players shown and their manager, Red Schoendienst, was $607,000.

Inside, the article had the following quote from Cardinals general manager Bing Devine: "Almost every place I go someone will ask me how Dal Maxvill can be making $37,500."

Just over 40 years later, we find the Rays' payroll approximately 100 times more than the '68 Cardinals, but it is far from the highest payroll in baseball, much less baseball history.

But Tampa Bay's estimated $60 million payroll for the coming season -- though paltry in comparison to what the estimated payrolls of the Boston Red Sox ($135 million) and New York Yankees ($205 million) will be in 2009 -- is a major step for the franchise and a testament to the organization's commitment to winning.

Consider that the Rays' 2009 payroll is nearly 2 1/2 times greater than the '07 Opening Day payroll ($24 million) and that becomes even more evident.

Tampa Bay had its lowest payroll in 2003 at $19.63 million, and the team's high came in '00, when it was at $64,407,910.

Circumstances dictate the Rays must be more creative than the Red Sox and Yankees. For starters, despite winning its division, Tampa Bay drew just 1.8 million to Tropicana Field in 2008. While the mark equated to the team's best since the inaugural season in 1998, it ranked third lowest among the 14 American League teams. Prior to that, the Rays ranked last for seven successive seasons. In addition to lower revenues from attendance, Tampa Bay's TV market is smaller than many competitors, which also means less revenue.

"We have unique challenges that we're confronted with, and so do the Yankees," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman at the Winter Meetings. "Money is not one of their concerns, but they have other issues they have to deal with. And last year, I think we showed that payrolls don't necessarily decide the standings. It certainly helps, but it doesn't automatically decide them either."

Hot Stove

Rays fans can't be faulted too much for having to learn to appreciate their team given the frequency of losing in the past. And there are signs they are responding to the quality product the new ownership is putting on the field. Tampa Bay certainly responded on the field when the fans came out to watch it play in 2008, posting a 21-2 mark when more than 30,000 showed.

The Rays are hoping the fans continue to respond, despite the current economy. A positive fan response would help Tampa Bay bankroll player development -- both in the United States and abroad -- as well as help keep players the organization has developed in its own system and allow the Rays to sign the occasional free agent to augment their core, as they have this offseason. No matter how much the situation improves, the club will always have to operate with more prudence than many organizations.

"It's a fact of life: Our margin of error is much smaller than the teams we compete against in our division," Friedman said. "We have to keep that in mind with every transaction we make."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.