No, the Tampa Bay Rays probably aren't going to catch the Boston Red Sox this season, and qualify for the championship tournament for the third time in four seasons. To do that, they'll have to start by winning at least three of four games in the series that begins in Fenway Park tonight. A tall order, especially with Josh Beckett rejoining the Red Sox rotation.
Whatever happens, though, let us not ignore the Rays' stunning achievement.
When they went from last place in 2007 to first place -- and the World Series! -- in 2008, the pundits applauded, but many suggested the Rays were a flash in the pan. Or maybe two flashes in the pan. Sure, a little luck and pluck might get them into the playoffs once or twice, but eventually their precarious financial position would knock them down a peg or three. Their good young players would wind up with richer clubs, and no franchise can crank out good young players forever.
The latter might be true. The days of exceptionally high draft picks have been over for a while and probably aren't coming back soon. On the other hand, among the Rays' promising young starting pitchers, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson were both fourth-round picks, while phenom Matt Moore was an eighth rounder.
When the Rays went from 97 wins in 2008 to 84 in 2009, the pundits said maybe the Rays were a one-hit wonder.
They won 96 games in 2010.
Okay, two-hit wonders. Especially with Carlos Peña and practically the entire bullpen departing via free agency. And doubly especially with the Rays cutting their payroll from $73 million in 2010 to $42 million in 2011.
Yet here they are again, just a few (granted, somewhat unlikely) Fenway Park wins away from throwing a huge scare into the Red Sox.
What's most stunning about the Rays is how well they've done, and how little money they've spent.
We can explore this subject via the concept of "marginal wins".
Essentially, any team can win 50 games no matter how much much (or little) money it spends. It's the rest of the wins that you're paying for. As devised by the late Doug Pappas, we can compare how much money teams spend -- above the salaries that every team must pay, based on MLB minimum salaries -- for each of those wins above (roughly) 50: marginal wins.
Enough introduction. It's not really so complicated.
From 2008 through last night, the Rays have won 359 games and spent roughly $220 million on major-league salaries. The Red Sox have won 365 games and spend nearly $600 million.
Excise those 50 wins that anybody could pick up for nothing, and the ratio is almost perfect: the Rays have spent roughly $1 million per marginal win, the Red Sox $3 million.
I don't mean to suggest anything about the relative talents or performances of the respective front offices. The Rays have a set of limitations, while the Red Sox have a completely different set of limitations. My only real points are that 1) the Rays have done something unique, and 2) they've done it for enough seasons that we shouldn't expect the streak to end with this one.
Win or lose this weekend, the Rays will once again scare the big boys in 2012.