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Yes, young = cheap. But can it mean success for Rays in the future?

ST. PETERSBURG — Free agents are still available, and the calculators are already overheating.

There’s $75 million spent on a starter in St. Louis and $95 million for a reliever in Houston. San Francisco dropped $115 million on an outfielder from Korea, and Los Angeles has committed more than $1 billion for a couple of stars from Japan. Even with the likes of Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Cody Bellinger taking their time on the open market, MLB teams have spent more than $2.4 billion on free agents in the past couple of months.

And Tampa Bay’s contribution to this orgy of receipts?

A cool $1.1 million, or 0.04% of MLB’s total spending.

Even by Tampa Bay’s dollar-store standards, that’s an incredibly low investment in the free-agent market. Over the previous five years, the Rays averaged about a $22.5 million commitment on free agents such as Zach Eflin, Brooks Raley, Corey Kluber, Michael Wacha, Avisail Garcia and Charlie Morton.

So why has their credit card been put on hold this offseason?

As beat writer Marc Topkin explained in a recent story, the Rays are putting a lot of faith in their abundant farm system with 20-somethings Jonathan Aranda, Curtis Mead and Taj Bradley getting cracks at the opening day roster, along with younger trade acquisitions such as Jose Caballero, Ryan Pepiot and Jonny DeLuca.

And with Eflin, Brandon Lowe, Randy Arozarena and Yandy Diaz all making $8 million or more, the Rays are still projected to have a payroll in the $90 million range, which would be a record for Tampa Bay.

Coming off a 99-win season, there’s still enough talent on the roster for the Rays to be playoff contenders for the sixth season in a row.

But this winter’s nest egg strategy appears to have longer-range implications.

It’s as if the Rays decided not to break the bank in 2024 because they may need that money when they’re in a better position to go for broke in 2025 and beyond.

Shane McClanahan is expected to miss this entire season, and Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen will not be available until late summer. Even Shane Baz will need to ease back into the rotation after elbow problems limited him to 132 innings over the past three seasons. That’s four quality starting pitchers who will be confined to smaller roles than usual.

And that doesn’t take into account the Wander Franco question. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Rays will be without their starting shortstop in 2024 due to his legal situation in the Dominican Republic. But if Franco somehow avoids jail time and/or a hefty MLB suspension, that’s another key asset who could be available again in 2025.

When it comes to salaries, the Rays do not operate strictly on a year-to-year basis. Instead, they tend to look at payrolls as a three-year rolling number. In other words — and I’m making these figures up — if they have $320 million to spend from 2024-26, they might decide it’s wiser to limit the payroll to $90 million in 2024 so they can boost it to $105 million in 2025 and $125 million in 2026.

So what, exactly, does it mean for 2024?

The Rays will need fortune on their side if they’re going to contend.

Pepiot, Baz and Bradley all have fewer than 110 innings in the big leagues. Aranda, Mead, DeLuca, Caballero, Rene Pinto and Richie Palacios all have fewer than 210 at-bats. Just based on MLB odds, there’s probably a greater chance that a majority of those players will struggle rather than excel in 2024.

But here’s something else to consider:

How much better will Mead be in 2025 if he gets to see MLB pitching on a consistent basis this year? How much better will Bradley be at age 24 in 2025 than he will be at 23 in this upcoming season? How important is it for the Rays to figure out if Pinto can be the answer at catcher, or whether they need to look for more help next off-season?

It’s true, trading Tyler Glasnow does not help the level of confidence or optimism this spring. Nor does losing Luke Raley, Andrew Kittredge or Robert Stephenson.

A step backward may not be guaranteed, but it does seem more likely than an extended postseason run in the coming months.

It would be a heck of a lot better if the Rays had the cash to spend on Bellinger or Matt Chapman or J.D. Martinez. And the rotation would look pretty solid with Montgomery standing next to Eflin. But, while those moves would help in 2024, they might complicate payroll decisions in 2025 for a team with a more challenging revenue situation.

We’ve grown used to the Rays spending less and winning more than most.

This season, that formula will face an even more difficult test.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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