Lower tier teams produce

Judging by this year’s postseason qualifiers in Major League Baseball, a level playing field still exists despite the battle of the haves and have nots.

Of course, the upper tier franchises such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers have proven their worth with two of the three advancing to within one round of the World Series.

Now take the other end of the spectrum. The Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays account for three of the five lowest payrolls. Yet, here they are with two of the three aforementioned teams pushing the envelope and taking their respective opponents to the limit for a Game 5 in the division series.

The Rays, especially, are intriguing despite getting knocked out of the postseason by the Red Sox on Tuesday. They compete in an American League East Division which tends to be the most competitive year in and year out. Nearly a quarter of their games are against the Red Sox and New York Yankees.

In the first 10 years of the franchise, they struggled and never won more than 70 games in one season. They finished in the cellar every year except one.

Manager Joe Maddon had been on board for two seasons when all of a sudden, something clicked and in 2008 they went from worst to first and advanced to the World Series.

A 22-year-old third baseman named Evan Longoria made his debut that season and has never left the starting lineup. Another 22-year-old, starting pitcher David Price, was just getting his feet wet as a late call-up.

The only other mainstay from that particular ballclub was Ben Zobrist. Otherwise, the Rays experience turnover upon turnover because of cost-cutting measures and manage to stay competitive in their division.

In the past six seasons, they have finished first or second four times and advanced to the postseason the same amount of occasions.

Madden maintains levity in the clubhouse and is considered an innovator when it comes to managerial moves. Who remembers how many times a team would play a shift on defense before the arrival of Maddon? They were few and far between. Now it’s almost expected from Tampa Bay and done with regularity from all 30 Major League clubs.

Even with their success, Tampa Bay doesn’t fill Tropicana Field to capacity. This past season, 1.5 million passed through the gates – half the amount who watch teams like the Tigers. Only in their inaugural season in 1998 did the Rays surpass two million in attendance.

On two occasions, Maddon has been recognized as the American League Manager of the Year. This year, that same honor in the National League should be awarded to the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle for instilling electricity to the Steel City.

Who knows, after producing their first winning season in 21 years the Pirates might follow the same path as the Rays. A small market team pushing around the big boys.

The Rays provided one blueprint. Perhaps the Pirates can be architects with one of their own.

Contact Kerry Patrick at kpatrick@newsandsentinel.com