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A Tale of Two Cities... and Payrolls

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Rays fans were so hopeful the new ownership would fix things up in a heartbeat, thus forgetting the days of one Vincent J. "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" Namoli. But the new ownership threw around words and plans that sounded an awful lot like the ones fans had heard before. Meanwhile in Boston, the Red Sox are throwing around money like Paul Revere threw around warnings about the British. The Rays and the Red Sox are in the same division, but they're in totally different leagues. Can the Rays really succeed, now and later, at the bottom of the payroll?

In 2004 everything went right for the Red Sox. Finally breaking "the curse of the Bambino" with a World Series title, Terry Francona and Theo Epstein could have stomped on a basket full of baby puppies and only been charged with disturbing the peace. That's not the case now as the Sox would not only get swept by the White Sox in 2005, they would fall to third place in 2006 in the division for only the first time since 1996. The answer: spend money! Lots of it! The next question: will it work? I'm not so sure.

The signing of Julio Lugo makes sense in that the Red Sox need a new shortstop and leadoff hitter. For such a tall order the four-year, $36 million deal offered by the Sox seems to fit the market although quite a few people will tell you Lugo is just an average shortstop. We will see how average he is this season if the rock hard turf at Fenway eats him alive like it did to Edgar Renteria and Alex Gonzalez (the two now-departed "future shortstops" of the Sox since Orlando Cabrera and Pokey Reese left after '04).

The signing of J.D. Drew to a monster five-year, $70 million is more baffling to me. Yes, Drew will protect Manny Ramirez in the lineup, but on a regular basis? In Drew's nine-year career, he has played close to a full season only twice, in 2004 and 2006. In 2000 and 2002 he played 135 games. The other seasons, not including his rookie 1998 season, he didn't last long mostly because of injuries. A quick look at shows seven stories of Drew not playing last season due to one injury or another. So while Drew will help protect Manny, and Drew will also likely take advantage of the short right field in Fenway, is it wise to lock him up for so much so long? I'm thinking not, since the Red Sox really need some help on the mound in the form of younger and healthier pitchers.

Upon hearing the Sox agreeing to spend a total of $106 million on two players between now and 2011, the names being tossed around at the Devil Rays table include Octavio Dotel and Russ Springer. These two are not quite marquee names like Lugo and Drew, but they do seem to be a better fit for the Rays than Lugo and Drew for the Red Sox. While Springer, Dotel, David Riske, and Keith Foulke won't blow anybody out of their chairs, they do fit a role that nobody else does for the Rays right now-- closer. Dotel and Foulke are risky since the former is not having a great recovery from Tommy John surgery while the latter hasn't recovered from two disastrous seasons in Boston. Riske and Springer I like since they can probably hold a lead or keep a game close late. They're not exactly Mariano Rivera or Billy Wagner, but they're definately not Brian Meadows or Dan Miceli. I have to hand it to the Rays, actually looking to fill a need with competent people and not throwing around chic names like Mark Mulder just to get attention.

By signing a couple of these guys, the Rays would allow their younger relievers to learn from the veterans or to learn in the minor leagues instead of getting their asses handed to them in an 11-2 blowout loss. So the short-term results will likely be the same-- delay that playoff party for another yer or two. But it is actually setting up the team for future success which is obviously what the NDRO wants.

But now we have the disturbing question, the "same division, different leagues" point I need to make. Being thrifty and building around the future now might bring success within the next three or four years. But will that gameplan foster success beyond then? With beat up outfielders like Drew making $14 million a year today, what's going to stop an equally beat up Rocco Baldelli from commanding anything less when his deal is up? And you wonder why the Rays are fielding trade requests for him with four years left on his contract.

I'm not crazy on Rocco, and I'm not sold on him until he plays a full season in full health, but whether it's Rocco, Carl Crawford, or Scott Kazmir, Rays fans need to be weary of how long the team's long-term contracts really are. Are the deals just to hang on to the player for two or three years at a discount price before moving them, or is it because these players really belong here for more than a few years? I agree with th NDRO that it makes no sense to spend for the sake of spending. At the same time, under baseball's current financial system, the bigger and more often most successful teams keep spending and everyone else has to spend just to keep up. Being thrifty sounds good now, but will it sound good again in a few years when today's Rays stars are playing elsewhere while the NDRO trumpets the "exciting young nucleus" that is being formed in AAA again?

Andrew Friedman says payroll doesn't dictate winning, which to some extent is true. But look at the track record since 1992 and you will see only the 2003 Florida Marlins won with a payroll in the bottom half of MLB. Seeing how they've ripped that team apart and started all over again tells me that gameplan can't work. The St. Louis Cardinals weren't in the top five of spending, but they had the eleventh-highest payroll this year, continuing a trend that has shown the more you spend the more likely you reap the rewards of a consistently winning team.

Going on the cheap now and trusting the draft picks of the ODRO is good for now, but is it really good for the future? Something tells me no, and if the NDRO doesn't change its focus from thrifty to investing over the next couple of years, I'm afraid there will be more "worst of" times than "best of".