Rays rewarded for staying the course

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

Joe Maddon answered his telephone on the second ring Thursday afternoon.

He'd not come down an inch from the day before, or from two days before.

Same guy, only without a real baseball game to break down or look forward to for the first time since he could remember.

Same energy, only without a clubhouse of Tampa Bay Rays around him, not for the moment.

"What I'm thinking about is next year," he said. "Just thinking about all the things that went well this year. And you know, more than anything, how proud I am of our guys. Not just that they played into this time of year, but how well they handled it as players and men once they were here."

That's all. Just happy. Just proud. Certainly preferring they would have won, and still maybe blown away by the whole thing.

"It's good, man," he said.

It had come fast, considering a mediocre season would have counted as significant progress, considering they don't even make the device that would measure how far the Rays did eventually did come.

Granted, there are sleeker, sexier business models.

Operational strategies do come a little cleaner.

But, these are the Rays, nee Devil Rays, and as their general manager had wryly explained in May, the organization's rise from annual surrender to eventual American League pennant – entirely different kinds of flags – was untraditional.

"It’s a blueprint we had," general manager Andrew Friedman said then. "Eleven years being the worst professional sports franchise and then sneak up on 'em. It worked."

Chuck LaMar preceded Friedman as GM. So he wears the franchise's first eight seasons, meaning he hatched and stood guard over the plan, such as it was, only to get fired and land a gig as director of pro scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies. Right, in plenty of time to beat the Rays in the World Series.

During his tenure gathering high draft picks and turning them into a solid farm system and a vaguely promising big-league team, LaMar earned a reputation among opposing general managers as being somewhat unreasonable in his trade demands. Actually, the word many used was "impossible."

But, LaMar went merrily about his job until too many last-place finishes meant it shouldn't be his job anymore, and only recently he was standing again inside The Trop, leaning on a dugout rail, considering a lineup of AL pennant winners he was too unreasonable to trade away.

"I think it's a crock, OK?" he snapped. "Because the people that everybody wanted were [Carl] Crawford, [Rocco] Baldelli, [B.J.] Upton, [Jason] Hammel, [Scott] Kazmir, [James] Shields. I can keep going if you want. That's who all the GMs in baseball wanted. And they were winning. We were not. But that's all we had. The only chance we had to win here was to hold on to the young nucleus of kids. And we took that chance.

"That's all we had to hang on. That's all the fans had to hang on all these years. And that is, 'The cavalry is coming.' "

Sadly for the organization, some GMs also wanted Bobby Abreu and Dmitri Young, but you can't get it all right.

Three years and three weeks after new Rays' ownership conducted its seminal front-office cleansing, which included him, LaMar seemed proud of his former organization. He adored those kids. Remember, too, they were all he had.

"It's one thing to sign good young players," he said. "It's another thing to hold onto those players. And it's another thing to take them to the World Series.

"To their credit, they didn't give in to media pressure or fan pressure. Things have changed. They picked their spots to make those changes."

The Rays have built something from the depths of the most powerful division in the game, and from a payroll that increased almost $20 million but was still small ($44 million) by contender standards.

The players developed too late for LaMar, though Friedman fit pieces into vacancies LaMar perhaps would not have. Acquiring Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett from the Minnesota Twins, for one, was very shrewd, both in way the players suited the club and the timing of their arrival.

But, indeed, they did come along. And now they've won, and won plenty, and their days of sneaking up on the game are over. What happens from here is predictable. The New York Yankees, flush with fresh cash and from embarrassment, are said to be hunting CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira first, and in the hopes of signing both. The Red Sox could be in on the same guys. The Orioles are, well, certainly in on Teixeira, but they've become something of a moving target, and the Toronto Blue Jays are a dark horse for Manny Ramirez, and will need starting pitching if A.J. Burnett walks.

What the Rays have in mind now is another run producer, something along the lines of a designated hitter who wouldn't hurt them in one of the outfield corners, but nothing close to Ramirez or, perhaps, even Pat Burrell. Think more in terms of Garret Anderson, who shares Angels ties with Maddon, or Raul Ibanez, both still productive and positive clubhouse influences, important in that they'd likely replace Cliff Floyd.

They'll surely be outspent by each of the other four teams in the division this winter, and they'll again have the division's lowest payroll, even if they turn October wonder into April season-ticket sales. Funny thing, for all they achieved for seven months, the Rays are still who they are. Owner Stu Sternberg can view this club as Tampa's hardball tipping point, but the proof will be in the seats soon enough. They are bright men. They have collected very talented players. The Yankees would kill for their pitching staff, which illustrates the extremes to which the franchises have drifted.

But, hey, that was the blueprint all along. Right?

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