How the Rays attempt to meet the dual goals of improving their team while reducing their payroll will make for a busy, intriguing and rumor-filled winter, and potentially a study in the application of theory vs. modern day financial reality.But as Erik Neander and staff trek across I-4 for the annual GM meetings that start today in Orlando, he deserves credit for starting from a realistic base:1) They are "not that close" to being good enough.2) They don't know exactly how they're going to get there.As odd as it sounds, in context those are both good things.First, that means the Rays were not fooled by winning their last four games of 2017 to finish 80-82 and within five games of a playoff spot."You look at the strength of some of the rosters that were present throughout the playoffs, certainly (the Astros and Dodgers) in the World Series, and you see the high-end talent that those teams possess, you see the depth they have of high-end talent," Neander said."We have some work to do. We are not one piece away from having rosters that I think on any given night can stand toe-to-toe with clubs like those that went deep in the postseason. We know that. We recognize that."Second, they are fully aware of how complicated it will be. Unlike other teams that can address needs like a Publix shopping list, the Rays have to be creative, flexible and, probably, patient in orchestrating moves to end up both better (as opposed to tanking) while cutting the payroll an undisclosed, and potentially undetermined, amount from the near season-ending $80 million. Flexibility will be vital."Our best chance to get to where we want to be is to avoid being too rigid in our thinking," Neander said. "We have to be opportunistic. We have to be responsive to the opportunities that present themselves within the market."It's not a lack of a plan. It's a matter of us having to have many different plans that we can be prepared to execute based on the feedback that we're given and the changes we're seeing across the game."This isn't a novel approach for the Rays. Former baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman used to say similar things back in the glory days, when they made the playoffs four times in six years (2008-13), "nimble" being his adjective of choice. Matt Silverman took a similar approach during his three years in charge.But what is different is that almost every team is smarter now, using some of the same metrics, theories and philosophies in evaluating players and considering moves that the Rays did. And that includes the teams that can also throw big bucks into the equation, such as the Dodgers, now run by Friedman, which makes it even tougher for the Rays.Making their mission more complex, they can't necessarily control the sequencing of the moves given the competition.Assume the Rays start by looking to fill glaring openings at first base and in the bullpen and potentially upgrading elsewhere. At the same time, they have to weigh the cost-saving benefits of trading higher-salaried potential chips (right-hander Jake Odorizzi, outfielder/DH Corey Dickerson, right-hander Alex Colome, second baseman Brad Miller, maybe right-hander Chris Archer) and others, knowing making deals creates more holes. Evaluate how the return on those trades could impact the current, and future, roster. Monitor shrinking options on the free-agent market, and initiate other trade possibilities, to fill open slots, with agents and other GMs setting deadlines. And in the background, project which, if any, of the jobs could be filled by their own promising prospects. "We believe in the core of players we have. Our farm system is as strong as it's been in quite some time, with a lot of players I think are close to graduating," Neander said. "So there is optimism for some of the players we have here and our chances to compete. But we're not that close at the same time."We need to be open and cognizant of that and try to do the best we can to provide opportunity to our young players, to provide the right opportunity to our veteran players and leaders of the club. But it could go in a lot of different directions in terms of how we ultimately find our way to get there."Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.