A low-budget showcase

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2007

DENVER - As usual for October, the Rays have been watching the postseason and looking ahead to what they hope are better days.

But the fact that the Rockies are still playing, and that the Indians and D'backs were the last two teams to stop playing, might give them more reason for optimism than normal.

That's because all three ranked at the low end of the major-league payroll list. The Indians, at $61.7-million on opening day, were 23rd; the Rockies, at $54.4-million, 25th; and the D'backs, at $52.1-million, 26th.

"I think what that says is that it's possible to win with a payroll in the bottom third," Indians GM Mark Shapiro said during the ALCS (and after the D'backs were out). "But Colorado and Cleveland are both examples of having to have a good plan in place, being dependent and reliant upon player development, scouting, Latin American operations, and a good organization from top to bottom making efficient decisions."

The Rays were 30th, at around $24-million, and even with Stuart Sternberg's promised 20 percent increase into the mid 30s are likely to be at or near the bottom again.

But at least they can see what's possible.

"It certainly confirms our belief that payroll doesn't decide the standings," Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "We feel very strongly about our overall plan and feel like we've made significant progress. But the most important part of that development process and plan is in the coming years, and we're very confident not only that we'll play at an extremely high level but have the same core players for many, many years."

KING JAMES: Noted author/analyst Bill James, in his forthcoming 2008 Handbook (available through actasports.com), rates the Rays as having the second best collection of young talent in the game behind Colorado.

But it's interesting how he got there, coming up with a list of the top 25 major-leaguers under age 30 that includes Scott Kazmir and James Shields, but not Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton or Delmon Young (whom he does consider "Grade-A players").

James calls Kazmir "sort of a shorter Steve Carlton," notes he "battled the league's strictest pitch counts" and lauds him for having three straight winning seasons in the AL East with the Rays playing behind him.

He raves about Shields, too, saying "he plays Drysdale to Kazmir's Koufax," noting how he "never wastes a pitch" and had an impressive 184/36 strikeout/walk ratio.

As for Young? "I know that a lot of people would list Delmon Young in the top five young players in baseball," James wrote, "but I don't see that his performance justifies that, and this isn't about scouting reports or press clippings, it's about performance."

He also said Edwin Jackson "just misses being A grade" and Andy Sonnanstine "ain't bad, either."

RAYS RUMBLINGS: INF Akinori Iwamura's winter vacation included caddying for his pro golfer friend, Takuya Taniguchi, at a recent tournament; Tanigushi finished 25th. ... Ex-Rays GM Chuck LaMar not only moved on to director of pro scouting with the Phillies, but according mlb.com, if GM Pat Gillick retires, as expected, after next season "LaMar could be considered for the position." ... Releasing RHP Jay Witasick merely expedited his exit since he would have become a free agent after the World Series. ... Troubled OF Elijah Dukes hit .316 in his first seven games for Licey in the Dominican League; 3B Evan Longoria hit .319 with four homers in his first 13 Arizona Fall League games. ... Eleven days until the uniform unveiling/name change; tbrays.com now links to the team Web site, tampabayrays.com does not. ... One benefit of adding OF Chris Snelling (besides his keen Australian wit): He has a .375 career average at the Trop. ... RHP Jae Seo is considering going back to Korea, reportedly for a $2.2-million deal. ... Manager Joe Maddon went to Venezuela last week to visit the team academy and meet staff.