1. Rays

Tampa Bay Rays score with free agent bargain shopping

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Published May 8, 2012

Two teams. Similar dreams.

One team has a new stadium, and as a result, it had money to burn. The other wants a new stadium, but still, it was willing to spend a little more. Call it money to singe.

One team went into free agency shopping for stars. Almost two hundred million dollars later, it had the leading hitter in the National League, a proven closer and a veteran starting pitcher.

The other went into free agency, like always, sifting through the bargains. Fourteen million later, it had a DH coming off shoulder surgery, a first baseman who strikes out too much and a relief pitcher the Angels threw away.

Score it Rays 3, Marlins 0.

Consider it the latest installment in the continuing commentary subtitled, "And isn't Andrew Friedman smart?''

If you are looking for a reason why the Rays have won as many games as anyone in baseball, the best place to start is at the desk of Friedman, the Vice-President of Beating Opponents With a Medium-Sized Bag of Nickels. (Yeah, the print on his business card is a little crowded.)

He is the best shopper in baseball. Everyone knows that about Friedman by now. As much as a cleanup hitter, as much as a closer, he has become an impact player in Tampa Bay. He has helped turn the Rays into a mongoose of a team, maximizing dollars and driving the rich kids crazy.

Granted, it is still early May, and the season won't be 30 games old until tonight. Once again, however, it seems that Friedman has had a fine offseason.

Luke Scott? Check.

Carlos Peña? Check.

Fernando Rodney? Double-check.

This is what Friedman does. He plucks treasures out of the trash. He leads the league in value. Put it this way: If you need a preowned car that has some wear but still has tread left, if you can ignore a dent or two and concentrate on how far it can take you, then Friedman is the man you want to go shopping with you.

To the amateur general managers among us, free agency sounds easy, doesn't it? You study the statistics, you count the money in the till and you add the best player you can imagine. It's as easy as reading the back of a baseball card.

Except for this: Sometimes, those pesky game results can make a perfectly reasonable decision look as stupid as throwing money into the street.

For instance, glance south toward Miami, won't you? Last offseason, the Marlins had money in their pocket and stars in their eyes. So they committed $191 million toward signing shortstop Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell and starting pitcher Mark Buehrle. Even the hard critics were impressed … right up until the season started and the Marlins came down with a nasty case of fourth place.

Bell? After signing a three-year, $27 million contract, Bell has lost the closer's job already by blowing four saves in seven chances. Odds are, he'll still wind up with the job — he does have 132 saves over the past three years — but that's a lot of money to wager on it. Meanwhile, his ERA is 11.42. Rodney's is 0.66.

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Reyes? Last year, he was the best hitter in the National League at .337. After signing a six-year, $106 million contract, he's more than 100 points lower (.224), and he has already made six errors. His fielding percentage is a career low .950.

Buehrle? After signing a four-year, $58 million contract, he's 2-4. To be fair, his 2.83 ERA suggests he has pitched better than that. On the other hand, are the Marlins paying him to be fair?

The Rays, meanwhile, have paid a combined $14 million for Peña, Scott and Rodney for this season. It's a much better deal, and as an added bonus, no one around here has to listen to Ozzie Guillen prattle.

This is the way the Rays have survived. By stretching a dollar from here to the postseason. By squeezing quarters until they leave a thumbprint. In baseball, most teams that search in the bargain basement finish in the basement, too. Not the Rays.

The point is this: Paying a guy a lot of money doesn't always mean a team is getting a great ballplayer. No one brings his wallet onto the field. In baseball, a little bit of smart can offset a great deal of payroll.

Ask the Yankees, who already regret the trade for Seattle pitcher Michael Pineda. "A massive decision gone wrong,'' is the way Yankees general manager Brian Cashman put it.

Ask the Angels, who have paid a lot of money for the single home run of Albert Pujols. Of course, we all agree that Pujols will be a fine player this season, and that .196 average won't last long. But his start was troubling enough to make you wonder if his 10-year contract (for $240 million) might be about five years too many.

Ask the Red Sox, who are still paying Carl Crawford on a seven-year, $142 million contract.

In other words, this free agency stuff is harder than it appears. And the more the richer guys mess up, the wiser Friedman looks by comparison.

Around the league, this is no longer a secret. Friedman has been praised before. I suspect it will happen again.

No, he isn't perfect. The Pat Burrell signing, for instance, wasted everyone's time. And the Rays still haven't found a cure for the catcher position.

Still, no one in baseball has maximized its payroll over the past five seasons the way the Rays have. Sometimes, you get the feeling that Friedman (and his scouts) can look at a photo of a thousand men and pick out the one relief pitcher in the crowd.

After a few years, it doesn't feel like luck anymore. It feels like smart shopping. Dollar-for-dollar, the Rays are as good as anyone.

Then again, it's the only chance they can afford.