Rays still doing things their way

The Rangers are giving notice to the rest of the American League that they’re not just a two-time pennant winner, they’re a club settling into ruling the roost -- the ascendant franchise in the circuit. From among the old standbys, it doesn’t hurt that the Yankees are dealing with rotation drama, the Angels have Pujols’ homer-lessness and the Red Sox have a miasma of self-inflicted dysfunction.

But there’s always the Rays, even with that double whammy Texas handed Tampa Bay in consecutive October showdowns. Ever mutating, transmogrifying and adapting, buying low and selling high, the Rays’ annual remix should always leave you wondering if they’re about to become something even more. Some of that is the usual enthusiasm over prospects, which the Rays crank out as if they held the patent: From David Price to Jeremy Hellickson to Matt Moore, they’ve produced one top pitching prospect after another.

They can and do get full credit for their acumen on player development, but it’s sort of like watching the winners on a futures market in which the payoff is guaranteed: Step 1, plant the seeds for success. Step 2, the crops come in. Step 3? Profit. Add in James Shields, and a can’t-lose choice between Hellickson and Wade Davis, and you’ve got a starting pitching platform that allows for a lot of freedom of action everywhere else.

Perhaps the more interesting aspect of the Rays’ ability to stay in the running year after year is how they use the adaptability that rotation affords them. In the lineup and in the bullpen, they’re comfortable with moving parts where other contenders crave stability. Starting from the huge bullpen turnover from 2007 to 2008 that contributed so much to their big worst-to-first turnaround and a pennant, the Rays have had a different leader in saves every season. And if Fernando Rodney winds up with more saves than Kyle Farnsworth, that’ll be a five-year streak.

By avoiding any truly expensive or lasting commitments in the bullpen, they were free to grab Rafael Soriano when the Braves were temporarily embarrassed by his acceptance of their arbitration offer. They were disappointed by off-speed reliever Joe Nelson in 2009, but that didn’t frighten them away from adding Joel Peralta last winter after he broke through with a slo-mo splitter. It also didn't stop them from getting sinkerballer Burke Badenhop from the Marlins despite rarely cracking 90. The Rays treat relievers like cheap upside bets -- snarfing them up, riding those who pay off and dumping those who don’t.

In the lineup, that same flexibility has rewarded them. Certainly, they have their major star in Evan Longoria, but how they’ve assembled a cast around him is a playbook every club should follow. First baseman Carlos Pena went away for a year, but the Rays loaded up on single-season alternatives -- Dan Johnson, Casey Kotchman, a crash-test dummy TBNL -- while letting Pena bank $10 million in Cubs cash. Then they brought him back at their price after the market’s biggest bidders had used up their cash chasing Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and the like. Pena’s current $7.2 million salary, adjusted for inflation, is only $400,000 more than what he was making in 2008, when salary arbitration first started pumping up the price of employing him.

Pena’s not the only offensive pillar back in place, though. The Rays’ recent 6-2 run owes plenty to their getting B.J. Upton back from the DL and into the lineup. Now maybe Upton is the organization’s example of a disappointing homegrown product. But if you can step back from the expectations game, and set aside those daydreams that every year Upton would hit .300, slug .500, draw 90 walks and steal 40 bases ... you might notice that he has done all of those things, just never at the same time, and so what? If a nameless center fielder was belting 20 homers and stealing 30 bases for your team, you’d probably like the sound of that. It’s certainly something you can build around.

But because the expectation has always been that Upton will do more, be more, you might think too much of what he hasn’t done and lose sight of his value. Even his defense can leave you frustrated; as the new edition of John Dewan’s Fielding Bible notes, he’s among the leaders in both what Baseball Info Solutions terms good plays and misplays. That’s proof positive he’s exasperating in all phases of the game -- and still immensely valuable.

The trickle-down effects of Upton’s return are legion. Desmond Jennings moves to left. Having him in place means that all of the working parts that Joe Maddon uses to gain an advantage are back to moving around. Luke Scott and Matt Joyce can scare the bejeezus out of right-handed pitching, Ben Zobrist can start at second base and move wherever else, and the Rays can keep cranking out runs at a clip (4.8 runs per game) that puts them among the game’s elite -- behind just the Yankees, Rangers and Red Sox. That’s despite the absence of a single eight-figure salary.

The way the Rays are playing of late, they don’t need one, because money isn’t the measure of success, winning is. With a lineup that’s coming together and a rotation that will deliver winnable ballgames night after night, the Rays, once again -- and without the drama associated with the other AL powerhouses -- will be there come October, as they were last year.