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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Rays focused on winning, not off-field baggage

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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- There's a joke in baseball, usually told about the so-called smart teams. It goes, "[Blank] is the new market inefficiency," where [blank] can be just about anything that seems to be coinciding with a team winning games.

This isn't a joke, though: players with baggage really may be a market inefficiency. The Tampa Bay Rays, a very smart team, have shown a willingness to take on players who other teams might shy away from, due to any number of off-the-field questions or issues.

It can be something as minor as boldly-stated political views (Luke Scott). Or it can be something much more serious, as with Josh Lueke, who served jail time after pleading no contest to a charge of false imprisonment with violence. In between are players like Yunel Escobar, Manny Ramirez, Juan Carlos Oviedo and Roberto Hernandez, all of whom garnered negative attention for reasons having nothing to do with their play on the field.

Escobar was dogged by accusations of less than full effort in Atlanta, and played with a homophobic slur written on his eyeblack last year in Toronto. Oviedo and Hernandez were both found to be using false names last year, while Ramirez was suspended due to a violation of baseball's drug policy.

Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, made it clear that it's not as though the club has made a concerted effort to sign players who come with yellow or red flags. They just can't afford to pass on those players if there's a fit on the field and in the clubhouse.

It's not a strategy in itself. Instead, it's just one tactic within the broader, essential strategy of finding value for a team that is always on a budget.

"Over the last few years, we've definitely taken some calculated risks," Friedman said. "And we're much more comfortable taking them now than we probably were in '07, just having more of a developed culture. So we go through things very methodically in great detail. And there have been guys we have determined wouldn't necessarily fit in, and others that we feel like the reward far outweighs the risk. And those are the moves we've made or at least attempted to make."

The most recent is Escobar, a player with star-level ability, but inconsistent performance and questions about his character. Hernandez and Oviedo represent low-risk, but potentially high-reward additions to the pitching staff. They come to a clubhouse where characters of all sorts are welcome, including the gregarious and outgoing, if sometimes controversial, Scott.

Among other headlines, Scott famously expressed his skepticism as to whether President Obama was born in the United States. His manager, Joe Maddon, leans much more to the left on the political spectrum, but neither Scott nor Maddon let the difference in views become an obstacle.

"This is an organization where people are allowed to be themselves," Scott said. "We all, just like in our citizen life outside the baseball field, we all have views. We all have beliefs. We all have different opinions on things. But here, we accept everyone's beliefs and personalities."

Scott was an easy call. He has no history of trouble with the law, no real concerns about clubhouse persona. In fact, he's widely regarded as an exemplary teammate. In other cases, the equation is more challenging. But if the Rays believe a player will fit in their clubhouse, and they believe he will help them win games, that player's baggage could make him a bargain.

"When it comes down to personality issues, a lot of times there's different reasons," Maddon said. "And I don't know. I'm not within that [previous team's] clubhouse or that city or whatever. You just want to believe once they get here, based on the way we set things up, it's not only about us and me and the coaches. It's about the players. They're going to be enveloped into this area where they're going to feel good about it, and they're going to be policed among each other."

It doesn't always work. The Rays might like to have the Lueke trade back. The right-hander spent the bulk of the 2012 season at Triple-A Durham, with iffy results. Meanwhile John Jaso, the man they sent to Seattle for Lueke, went on to have a big year for the Mariners before being flipped to the A's. Ramirez played five games for the Rays before he was handed another drug suspension, and he hasn't appeared in the Majors since.

But they won't stop trying. With a tenuous stadium situation and one of the lowest payrolls in baseball (25th out of 30 teams in 2012, according to USA Today), the Rays must be open to finding value wherever it may lurk.

"We have to get really creative in terms of our player procurement," Friedman said. "When we have specific needs, we cast a very wide net and do exhaustive due diligence to try to find the right subset of players to bring in that complement one another and give us the best chance to win 93-95 games in this division. It's just casting a very wide net and then sifting through that to try to find guys that we feel like make sense for us."

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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