Rays contend despite small payroll
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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.
Yup, Andrew Friedman saw the "Moneyball" film.
"My wife said, 'If it's that easy to make a trade, then why are you always working so hard?' " the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations said, smiling.
Reality is always tougher than fiction, especially in the AL East. Yet if Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics established the standard for how to succeed in this baseball era of massive payroll disparity, then Friedman's Rays look as if they're on course to reset the bar.
"I believe we can," Joe Maddon said Thursday. "I thought we could do it all along."
Maddon won 2011 AL Manager of the Year honors after his Rays, having lost 11 important players the previous offseason, mounted a spirited comeback over the Red Sox, clinching a playoff spot on the last night of the season when Evan Longoria slammed a walk-off homer against the Yankees. Then Maddon re-upped through the 2014 season and Friedman turned down overtures from the Angels and Astros to stay put.
The Rays made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, surpassing the Yankees in 2008 and Boston the past two years despite payrolls that usually were less than half of those two superpowers. The core of last year's wild-card team, including the five starting pitchers plus stud rookie lefty Matt Moore, is back.
So let's plan on this being Year Five of contention for the underfunded Rays. Beane's A's made the playoffs five times from 2000-2006 and were a strong second in 2004 and 2005, a seven-year run before Oakland hit its current skid.
With the help of the extra wild card, the Rays have a good chance to keep going to Year Seven and beyond. Moore is under control through 2019, Longoria and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson through 2016 and David Price and super utility guy Ben Zobrist through 2015. Friedman has displayed a consistent ability to shop well and Maddon has shown a consistent ability to utilize what Friedman acquires.
Brad Pitt's Billy Beane, in the Oscar-nominated film, talked about his desire to "change the game." The real Beane succeeded. So have these Rays; on Thursday, Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said, "I'm just not convinced we need to be as high [in payroll] as we've been in the past to field a championship-caliber team."
Yet the AL East is such a bear, Friedman said, and the Rays still are at such an economic disadvantage that he doesn't think about such items.
"I think that in 20 years, we'll have some sort of reunion of the guys that we had -- or 30 years, whenever it is -- and sit back and reflect on what we have accomplished," Friedman said. "And hopefully there are many more chapters to be written.
"But I think the great thing about this is, everyone that works in this building, no one's really taking the time to stop what they're doing and reflect. It's more about pushing forward and being driven by future success."
As a rookie in 2008, Longoria signed a six-year, $17.5-million extension that seems very likely to mature into a nine-year, $44.5-million deal, with team options for 2014 through 2016 likely to be exercised. He bet on the future before Tampa Bay put up as much as a winning record. While he limited his own earnings in delaying free agency, he looks like a visionary regarding the team.
"I like Tampa," Longoria said. "This is really where I made my home. I look forward to being here for a long time."
Being "here" for a long time, you could argue, means more than "in Tampa Bay." It also means "in the playoff hunt, scaring the daylights out of the Yankees and Red Sox."