An unusual thing has happened to the Rays on the way to Monday's opening of spring training in Port Charlotte: They've gone from underdogs to favorites.
Having been an unexpected and overachieving entrant in the playoffs three of the past four years, the Rays, after improving their lineup to go with dominant starting pitching and premium defense, are becoming the early chic pick in industry conversations and media predictions to get to the World Series.
It's enough to make an executive vice president call for a reality check.
"We have a chance, depending on how things come together, to be a very good team," the Rays' Andrew Friedman said. "But for anyone to say in February that we're better than the New York Yankees, I have a hard time with that being that they're stronger than they were last year, and they won the division pretty handily in 2011.
"The Red Sox for four months of the (2011) season were one of the best teams we've seen in the last 10 years, so the fact is they're going to be an incredibly tough team. I find the reports of them being an underdog amusing. And the Toronto Blue Jays are really talented and kind of flying under the radar a little bit."
So though Friedman obviously feels good about what the Rays have done, he's not buying the narrative that the balance of power in the AL East has shifted.
Especially since the bank accounts haven't. The Yankees are projected to have a major-league-most $200 million payroll, the Red Sox (despite their supposed "penny-pinching") around $178 million and the Rays — after a 50-plus percent increase —at about $65 million.
"We play in an incredibly difficult and competitive division," Friedman said, "and not only are we short-stacked relative to our direct competitors, but they are also incredibly well-run as well. So I think that motivates and challenges all of us, we know that we have to approach things differently, we have to work harder to try to overcome some of the disparity in revenues."
Which means from their view, nothing has really changed.
MONEY MANAGER: Manager salaries are tough to track down, but with an annual average of $2 million in his new three-year deal, Joe Maddon would rank in the middle third based on current contracts.
Among those reportedly making more: Dusty Baker (Reds), Bruce Bochy (Giants), Ron Gardenhire (Twins), Joe Girardi (Yankees), Ozzie Guillen (Marlins), Jim Leyland (Tigers), Charlie Manuel (Phillies), Mike Scioscia (Angels) and Bobby Valentine (Red Sox).
Had Maddon not signed and become a free agent, he likely could have gotten $4 million to $5 million a year. This season, he'll be in the bottom 10 again, making about $1.4 million.
RAYS RUMBLINGS: Nonroster INF Will Rhymes, a scrappy former Tiger, could be an interesting candidate for a job; some Rays people are already calling him the infield version of Super Sam Fuld. … Maddon's Hazleton Integration Project will be featured on ESPN's Outside the Lines today at 9 a.m. … ESPN.com's Jim Bowden gave the Rays a B- for their winter. … Shannon Magrane, daughter of former TV analyst Joe, has advanced to the top 40 on American Idol. … CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman was among those praising the deal to extend Maddon's contract: "Of course, the Rays did the right thing. They always seem to."