Alan Dell

Commentary | Disciplined plan allows Tampa Bay Rays to overcome payroll limitations

If the players had their salaries on the back of their uniforms instead of their names, the season opener between the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees would have been canceled for humanitarian reasons.

Fortunately for the Rays, that it is something baseball overlord Bud Selig hasn't yet required.

Having limited funds forces people to be frugal, but it doesn't mean they will be wise.

The Rays have been both, which is a reason they are baseball's new "Moneyball" team.

Tampa Bay opened the 2012 season by pulling out a thrilling 7-6 victory, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth against future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera on Friday at Tropicana Field.

To beat the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Rays have to be creative.

While the Yankees' payroll dwarfs Tampa Bay's by more than $135 million, it's easy to see who gets more for their dollar.

The Yankees' starting rotation heading into the season costs the club

$41.9 million. The Rays' starting five goes for $17.4 million. Any honest GM will tell you he would rather have Tampa Bay's, and it has nothing to do with money.

The Rays know the lifeblood of a team is its pitching and have gone to great lengths within their budget constraints to keep a good five together and valuable arms waiting in the wings.

Some baseball decisions are real simple. Any Little Leaguer can tell you a good pitcher's worth is immeasurable. Yet so many teams throw money around for a high priced bat when a good arm can save you the trouble and a lot of currency.

The Rays show patience in bringing along top prospects, and their front office is arguably the best in baseball, considering its low revenue stream.

Everybody talks about character. But the Rays mean it. They look for things a lot of the big spenders consider a waste of time.

"We want people who have a good work ethic, are of good character and are high-end defenders. We look for those things," Rays manager Joe Maddon says.

The Rays made the playoffs with the third-lowest payroll in baseball last season. Now they have the third-lowest payroll in the American League and sixth-lowest in baseball. For this organization, that means you think World Series.

The Rays' bullpen comes cheap at around $10.1 million, which is less than the Yankees Mariano Rivera ($14.9 million) and Rafael Soriano ($12 million) earn individually.

Rivera is the kind of luxury the Rays could never afford, let alone Soriano (been there, done that anyway); that's where Maddon's magic comes in. He is the best at matching pitchers against hitters and vice-versa, often in a one-bat battle of wills.

It would be nice to have high-priced arms, but Maddon works well if you just get him the right bodies.

The Yankees' starting infield costs $82.8 million. The Rays' foursome that will take the field most of the time drains $17.2 million off the payroll. Throw in Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson and Jeff Keppinger, and it's only another $2.5 million.

"We value versatility and guys who are good on the defensive side of the ball and have an organized strike zone," Maddon says. "I've been part of situations in the past where we have not been specific enough. But we are very specific here, so when guys come they are able to play the kind of game you want. Our front office does a great job identifying the players we need."

The Rays make do with what they have and it all goes back to pitching and defense; have that and you don't need as much offensively.

One of the benefits of having a low-budget lineup is it reduces pressure. Sean Rodriguez and Brignac, who battled for the shortstop job all spring, didn't have to worry about anyone calling them overpaid with their combined salaries at less than a million.

The Oakland A's had eight straight winning seasons and went to the playoffs five times through 2006 when they were baseball's "Moneyball" team. The Rays have four consecutive winning seasons through 2011 and made the playoffs three times.

Billy Beane couldn't keep it going forever in Oakland. But with a young core of talent players and a farm system that is one of the best in baseball, the Rays look as if their success should continue for the foreseeable future.

Enjoy!

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.

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