October 3, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3), center fielder B.J. Upton (2) and teammates sit in the dugout and watch the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Baltimore Orioles 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays Model For Contention

Over the past few years, there has been a rise in the so-called ‘Super Teams’, where teams with larger payroll capabilities have gone out and either purchased, or traded for, the purported best players on the market. This offseason, teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays have been acquiring the best names available while essentially creating their own versions of a fantasy league squad. Teams such as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have ignored their true needs (in the Angels case – pitching) to sign a marques free agent to apparently make a splash with a flashy free agent such as Josh Hamilton.

However, this tactic is not a guarantee of success. Of the four teams that had the highest payroll, three did not make the playoffs. In fact, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox, second and third in payroll in 2012, and were never truly in contention for the playoffs. The Miami Marlins, meanwhile, had the eighth highest payroll as they splurged on free agent talent, only to trade virtually any player they had making more than $3Million after the season.

Even though the Rays play in the same division as the Red Sox, the Blue Jays, and the payroll behemoth New York Yankees, they have managed to remain a playoff contender, despite not having a payroll above $72Million on Opening Day in any of those seasons. So, how have they been able to remain in contention despite this apparent disadvantage?

The biggest key seems that the Rays are willing to make hard decisions to improve their ballclub, with one eye to the present and another to the future. As difficult as trading James Shields may have been, the front office felt that it was the best decision for the Rays to continue to contend. Not many other teams would have the nerve to move one of their fan favorites for a collection of prospects, even if one of those coming back is considered the best minor league player in baseball, yet the Rays have done just that. And instead of any real feelings of outrage, there appears to be just the opposite, as most Rays fans seem to feel confident that Andrew Friedman and the front office have made the right move yet again.

Likewise, the Rays focus on collecting players potentially primed for bounceback seasons, typically with great success. While this is likely due to their economic constraints, the Rays have nonetheless been able to locate undervalued assets on the scrap heap. Their ability to assess their needs, and locate players either via trade or free agency to fit in with their concept of how a contending small market club should be constructed, has allowed the Rays to compete against teams such as the Yankees or Red Sox.

While it would be great if the Rays had the resources to lock up all of their top players and sign top free agents, the reality is that they are simply unable to do so. Instead of bemoaning their plight, and their placement in a division with two teams that have seemingly unlimited financial resources, the Rays have found a way to compete for each of the last five seasons. The Blue Jays and the Dodgers can build their Dream Teams if they so desire, yet towards the end of the 2013 season, it is likely that the Rays will still be in contention for the playoffs.

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