Rays must make best of opportunity

KEN FIDLIN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

In this summer of discontent, just what the Blue Jays don't need is another visit by the Tampa Bay Rays to remind them just how dramatically the landscape has changed in the American League, and especially in the AL East.

But, here those Rays are, back in town with their wildcard hopes revitalized, looking to gorge themselves on a heaping helping of Blue Jay. Even though the Rays, a year removed from their breakout season, appear to have taken a step backward this year, they sit well within striking distance of the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox in the AL wild-card race.

Frustrated Jays fans like to point to the Rays as a shining example of how success can be achieved, even in the AL East and even in a market as modest as the Tampa Bay area. This kind of thinking, however, falls under the "Be careful what you wish for" category, conveniently ignoring the depths of despair that the Tampa Bay franchise had to endure before it achieved this state of grace.

This is a team that, for the first 10 years of its existence, averaged 97 losses a year and earned the right to the No. 1 player in the draft four times, never drafting worse than eighth. In Year 11, they won 97 games and advanced to the World Series, when the critical mass of all those high drafts dovetailed with a series of shrewd trades and free agent pickups.

Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi likes to talk about how the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, because of their extreme wealth, never have to experience a down cycle. He's right about that, just as he's right that the Rays will have to be both good and lucky to survive the inevitable churn of lineups and rosters while maintaining some level of economic sobriety in the next few years.

In the past three seasons, Tampa Bay's payroll has gone from $24 million US in 2007, to $44 million a year ago, to $63 million in 2009. With a roster that contains so many young, upwardly mobile players, more increases are inevitable.

Before making any changes, the Rays have nearly $40 million committed to 11 players for 2010. That number doesn't include arbitration-eligible players such as Jason Bartlett, having a terrific season at shortstop; catcher Dioner Navarro; centre fielder B.J. Upton; closer J.P. Howell; reliever Grant Balfour; and starter Matt Garza. Those six players are all going to command raises.

Despite their trip to the World Series last season, the Rays remain one of the worst home draws in baseball, averaging 24,168 per game, just slightly lower than the Jays.

The thinking in Tampa is that last year's meteoric rise through the standings inflated expectations so dramatically, that when they failed to take the East by storm again early this year, the buzz around the franchise died back.

"Winning the AL certainly raised every one's expectations, for our fans, our players and the rest of the organization," team president Matt Silverman told the St. Petersburg Times. "We don't see it as fair, or unfair. It's just human nature."

It's not as if Rays management is going to have to tear the guts of this team apart any time soon. They have their best player, Evan Longoria, tied up on a reasonable contract that tops out at $11.5 million in 2016. They have most of their pitching staff under control for the next three or four years at salaries that won't break the bank.

So, after wandering in the baseball desert for a decade, they're not going back to their roots any time soon. Neither does it mean that the good times will roll indefinitely.

The window of opportunity is short for most teams. For others, like the Blue Jays, that window remains shuttered.


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