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Brilliant bargain shopping has helped Tampa Bay Rays stay competitive

They woke up this morning scattered around the country. The first baseman. The leftfielder. The shortstop. The starting pitcher. The entire bullpen.

If you plotted it on a calendar, 14 of the 25 players from the roster of May 10, 2010, are no longer employed by the Tampa Bay Rays on May 10, 2011.

Call it a makeover. An overhaul. Call it the dismantling of the American League East champions with one important caveat.

On May 10, 2010, the Rays were in first place.

And precisely one year later, they are back again.

Who knows if it will last, but the improbability of a pawn shop roster challenging once more for the lead in baseball's most intimidating division is a story worthy of wonder.

And if you are not yet convinced that it is a remarkable achievement, think of it this way:

The seven highest-paid Rays of 2010 have all departed.

A lot of teams lose one, or even two, of their best players and struggle to come back the next season. The Rays, on the other hand, lopped off almost the top one-third of their roster and are still on pace to win 95 games.

To put that in context, if we were talking about the Yankees, that would mean Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada would have turned in their pinstripes this season.

So how, exactly, have the Rays pulled this off?

Well, the basic formula remains the same as in 2010. Tampa Bay still has the most cost-efficient (i.e. young) starting rotation in the league. That concept of stockpiling young, talented starters is the basis for everything else the franchise does.

But, beyond that, executive vice president Andrew Friedman appears to have done a marvelous job of sifting through the marketplace to find usable spare parts.

He signed a handful of free agents (Juan Cruz, Casey Kotchman and Felipe Lopez) to cheap minor-league contracts and plucked another (Rob Delaney) off waivers.

He traded for a collection of players (Sam Fuld, Brandon Gomes, Brandon Guyer, Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell) who spent the bulk of 2010 in the minors.

And when he did spend a little money, Friedman got a DH (Johnny Damon), a closer (Kyle Farnsworth) and a setup man (Joel Peralta) for less than what the Cubs agreed to pay Carlos Peña this season.

So did the Rays get lucky?

Perhaps, in some ways.

Fuld played above his head at a time when the Rays needed help. Kotchman got hot as Dan Johnson continues to struggle with his swing and confidence.

Still, in a lot of ways, this has gone precisely by design. Maybe not in every individual case, but in the overall concept of stockpiling cheap players with high upsides.

The Rays will never be able to chase the Jayson Werths or the Cliff Lees of free agency, so they have to find players who are undervalued for some reason.

Maybe it's because the player has yet to prove himself at the major-league level. Maybe there is an injury involved. Maybe it is a veteran player coming off a down year or two.

Whatever the reason, the player is far from a sure bet. This is why, for instance, no one was willing to give Kotchman or Lopez or Cruz or Dirk Hayhurst or Cory Wade a major-league contract in the winter.

And when you're dealing with this type of player, you are invariably going to have misses. For every Kotchman, you will have a Hank Blalock. For every Joaquin Benoit, you will have a Jason Isringhausen.

So what it comes down to is calculated risks. You accept that not every deal will work as planned, but you must be sharp enough to find the occasional payoff.

And you have to understand that you're not going to find a Derek Jeter using this method, so you must be willing to find players with complementary skills to fill a particular need.

Some of this also speaks to a franchise's deep farm system. The Rays could not have traded Matt Garza or Jason Bartlett if they were not confident in Jeremy Hellickson and Reid Brignac. In this sense, the Rays added at the same time they were subtracting.

Now, it is still far too early in the season to say whether the Rays have approximated the skill of their 2010 roster with all of their low-cost additions in 2011. And, to be honest, their 20-14 record might be due, in some part, to a fairly soft schedule.

Nonetheless, it's pretty impressive that a team can reduce its payroll by more than 40 percent and still be in first place nearly six weeks into a new season.

And if the Rays are still there in six months, it will be the story of 2011.

Brilliant bargain shopping has helped Tampa Bay Rays stay competitive 05/09/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 9, 2011 9:47pm]
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