ST. PETERSBURG — There were dark days this winter when Rays officials would ride down from their fourth-floor offices and make the long walk out of Tropicana Field feeling exactly as down as you'd expect.
Half the team that just won the American League East title for the second time in three years was leaving via free agency or by a pair of financially related trades, and the 40 percent slash in payroll mandated by ownership was severely restricting executive vice president Andrew Friedman's options in finding worthy replacements.
Some of their own players were concerned. "I'm sure it wasn't easy on him," veteran starting pitcher James Shields said. "I couldn't even imagine what he was going through."
Rival executives who could — at least those in other divisions — commiserated. "I really felt for them," Giants general manager Brian Sabean said. "Because of how they were able to build things there from within and the success they had recently, it's a tough pill to swallow."
But there would be no pity parties in the Trop parking lot.
Instead of fretting about the future, Friedman and his staff found solace and support in their past. Not in the champagne celebrations, but the days in previous winters that felt so much like these, when it seemed like nothing was going to work out but, eventually, did.
"We're never going to win a winter in this division," Friedman said. "What matters is what happens over the course of 162 games."
That became "our therapy," Friedman said, the way they handled "those bad days in the winter when you don't accomplish what you want to, or when there's something you want to accomplish to start the dominoes in a certain direction that you're not able to.
"But we've won the East two of the last three years, and I can assure you we didn't win the AL East 'Battle of the Hot Stove Headlines' in any of those three years."
They can't do it that way, not with the cash their opponents flash around (like the $142 million the Red Sox gave former Ray Carl Crawford).
Plus, that's not really their style anyway.
The Rays are grinders who work a process, melding new-school methodologies and old-fashioned work ethic, combining extensive data, research and preparation with creativity, an openness to take risks and a determination to find different, and better, ways.
And the willingness to talk long into the night. "Andrew's remarkable," California-based agent Scott Boras said. "It's like he lives on the West Coast."
So as much as this offseason seemed stacked against them, the Rays insisted the task wasn't much different than they faced — and relished — the previous five offseasons.
"It would be very easy for us to sit back, throw up our hands and say we don't stand a chance in this division, and cite the differences in revenue, et cetera," Friedman said. "But that's not our mentality."
Which is? "We thrive on being the perennial underdog," he said.
If anything, they took this offseason as more of a challenge.
"Those are smart guys over there," Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. "They knew this time was coming."
Little of what unfolded was a surprise, though reliever Joaquin Benoit's $16.5 million, three-year deal with Detroit was an early indicator that retaining and/or restocking the bullpen would be tougher than anticipated, and Crawford's decision to sign with the rival Red Sox stung a bit. The toughest part wasn't the break-up of the team, Friedman said, but of the personal relationships with the players who helped them succeed.
Around mid December, after Crawford, Carlos Peña and Jason Bartlett left, Friedman called Evan Longoria, assuring their young star third baseman that despite the losses, they weren't looking at 2011 as a rebuilding year and would do everything they could to keep the team a contender.
"And," Longoria said Friday, "I think he did that."
As a story arc, the offseason seemed to crater with the Jan. 8 trade of No. 2 starter Matt Garza to the Cubs, which fans perceived as a sign of surrender, then rebound with the signings of veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.
But Friedman said the offseason can't be viewed in linear fashion, because the timing of some moves is too unpredictable and out of their control. And they don't keep a tally sheet for three months' work, because they are focused on broader time spans, often seasons ahead.
It feels like a roller coaster, Friedman said, but a better analogy is "constantly changing jigsaw puzzle." The goal is to synch fluctuating spending — they won at $43 million in 2008, borrowed ahead to get to $63 million in 2009 and $73 million in 2010, and are now back to around $41 million — with the talent level needed to remain competitive.
He feels they've done that, for this season with "upside players" and for the future, which considering how the offseason started is saying something.
There has been some analysis dismissing the Rays as a cute story whose time is up. Others, especially in the game, are wary they are still a threat, with Red Sox GM Theo Epstein already saying "the demise of the Rays is greatly exaggerated."
Friedman and his staff, naturally, aren't really paying attention to what others are saying.
"What's important to me," he said, "is that internally we're focused on defending the American League East crown."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]times.com