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Rays camp report: Bending baseball's laws the norm in Tampa

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Joe Maddon's Rays continue to find postseason success despite a low payroll. (Getty Images)  
Joe Maddon's Rays continue to find postseason success despite a low payroll. (Getty Images)  

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Rays are a problem for people who want to complain that baseball is unfair.

They're a problem for those who say that the Pirates and the Royals and the Indians don't win simply because other teams have money and they don't.

The problem is getting worse ... because the Rays keep winning.

Tampa Bay Rays
Danny Knobler
It's not fair. Tampa rotation had the best ERA in the American League in '11. Likes, dislikes >>
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When they won the American League East in 2008, beating out the mighty Yankees and Red Sox and going all the way to the World Series, the argument went something like this:

Sure, the Rays can build a team that can win once, maybe even twice. But they'll never be able to sustain it.

Except that they have.

Four years later, the Rays have been in the playoffs three times (same as the Yankees, once more than the Red Sox). Four years later, the Rays are still considered one of the game's very best teams.

And unlike in 2010, when the Rays were feared to be near the end of their run because Carl Crawford and the whole bullpen were headed to free agency, the Rays begin 2012 knowing that they can keep their core players together through 2013 -- and probably beyond.

"There is an expectation of winning," second baseman Ben Zobrist said this week. "There is a feeling of being as good or better than all those teams that make all the big moves over the winter."

Rays officials still insist that to keep this going for years and years, they'll need a higher payroll, more revenue, (in all likelihood) a new ballpark or (and they'll never say this) a new home city.

Logic says they're right. Their own history says maybe they're not.

The payroll is going up this year, as it did in 2010, in ownership's latest effort to stimulate attendance and revenue at Tropicana Field.

Fantasy Writer
Breakout ... Matt Moore, SP: When a top prospect with almost zero major-league experience generates as much hype as Matt Moore has, you're usually better off avoiding him in Fantasy. Any amount of on-the-job learning, and his numbers won't match the investment. But Moore showed what makes him different in only his second major-league start last year, which also happened to be Game 1 of the ALDS at Texas. With that pressure on that stage against that lineup, he allowed just two hits in seven shutout innings. That's poise. In those seven innings, he showed he's not scared, nervous, intimidated or otherwise in over his head and it's not like his stuff was ever in question. The Rays are clearly believers, actually pushing proven pitchers aside just to get Moore on their opening day roster. And because of his gradual increase in innings in the minors they're already counting on him for 200 innings, which should easily mean 200 strikeouts. If the other numbers fall in line, what's stopping him from being an ace (and one with RP eligibility at that)?
Bust ... Matt Joyce, OF: Wait, this one is labeled wrong. Joyce was a long-awaited minor-leaguer who did nothing but live up to hype when he finally got to play regularly last year, even making the All-Star team. Surely he's more of a sleeper than a bust in waiting, right? Right? Sadly, no. Most of his production last year stemmed from an exceptionally hot May in which he hit .414 with seven homers and a 1.229 OPS. From June 1 to the end of September -- a full two-thirds of the season -- he hit only .226 with 10 homers and a .691 OPS. For the year, he hit only .217 against lefties, likely condemning him to a platoon role again. And because he's already 27 he has less room for improvement than you might think. Joyce's final numbers may look OK but he was by and large a disappointment last year. And if his struggles prevent him from getting full-time at-bats this year, he'll be a waste of a middle-round pick in Fantasy. -- Scott White
Depth Chart | Rays outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

"Once again, we have extended beyond our comfort level," said club president Matt Silverman, who along with owner Stu Sternberg authorized a 2012 payroll that will land north of $60 million (about 50 percent higher than last year, but still nowhere near the Yankees and Red Sox). "We feel it's the right thing to do. We're hoping it will pay dividends."

Maybe it will, maybe it won't. Despite numbers that insist that the Rays have a bigger fan base than the NFL's Buccaneers, and despite all the winning they've done the past four years, the Rays have never ranked higher than ninth in the 14-team American League in attendance.

And while season ticket sales are running ahead of last year, they're behind where they were a couple of years back.

The Rays aren't making progress -- except on the field.

To a team that made the playoffs last year, they add Matt Moore for a full season. They allowed Johnny Damon to leave, but added Luke Scott (at $6 million) and brought back Carlos Pena (at $7.25 million) to replace him. They held onto their pitching depth, so much so that 11-game winner Wade Davis will open 2012 in the bullpen.

Yes, they've sustained it. Yes, they can keep sustaining it.

But how?

"Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon," reliever J.P. Howell said. "To be honest with you, that's why."

An outstanding general manager who put together a staff that understands how to acquire and develop talent. A manager who, besides putting his players in position to succeed, convinces them that there's no reason they shouldn't succeed.

"The guys they bring in here, it's freaky how good they are," Howell said. "They know how to pick them."

Maddon credits Friedman and Sternberg, and the players. But he insists that there's another factor that helped the Rays get good and stay good.

"The better drug testing helps us be this team," he said. "It leveled the playing field. You're not able to buy what you were able to buy before.

"That permits our young players to play as well as the Yankees and Red Sox. It allows us to catch up. Had that policy not come to bear, I don't think we could have made the playoffs three of four years."

Drug testing puts a premium on younger players, and thus on scouting and development. It also seems to lead to lower-scoring games, putting a premium on pitching and defense, and on finding ways to create runs. Again, that works in the Rays' favor.

Because when it comes down to it, the Rays have been successful because they've done a better job identifying and developing pitching than just about any other team.

They realize that they can't let up, because at some point the current group could/will become too expensive to retain. They fear that the time will come when big money will rule again, and that they won't be able to keep up.

But we're four years on from 2008, and that time hasn't come yet. There's no sign it's coming this year or next year or even the year after.

The Rays have sustained it. So don't listen to the excuses from the teams that can't.

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