CHICAGO -- How do you build a champion with a fraction of the budget of the big spenders in your division?

Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his staff had a plan, and obviously it was a very good one.

With a player payroll of roughly $44 million -- the second-lowest in baseball, lower than only Florida's $22.1 million -- the Rays went from the worst record in baseball to American League East champions this year. The incredible turnaround began when Friedman took over the organization's baseball operations three years ago.

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The Rays are the 13th team in the Wild Card era to make the playoffs with a payroll that ranked among the bottom third in the game. But they're the first team in that time to make it with a payroll that's less than one-half of the Major League average.

"First and foremost, you build through the Draft and player development," Friedman said. "We had a plan for what we wanted to do and we've followed that plan."

A few years ago, Friedman, senior vice president of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker and other key members of the staff sat down with the goal of putting together a plan.

"We put together a blueprint that we felt was the recipe for success, not just for one year but to maintain the consistency over a longer period of time," Hunsicker said. "Whether you're in the American League or the National League, regardless of what history says about the differences between the leagues, one recipe that's worked forever is having a solid pitching staff, a defense that supports that pitching staff where you're not giving away extra outs that leads to extra runs where you're beating yourself on a consistent basis, a lineup that isn't full a lot of boom-or-bust-type guys, guys that can maybe hit 30 or 40 home runs, but they're all striking out a couple hundred times a year.

"So we look for a balance in the lineup, for some contact-type hitters, guys that are willing to take a walk, when the opportunity presents itself, work the count, get into the bullpen on an earlier basis because you're working that starting pitcher more earlier in the game. Lots of different issues like this that were all part of this game plan that was put together a couple of years ago and I really think this team is a byproduct of that."

Having a blueprint is one thing, implementing it without unlimited funds is quite another. Many a small-market franchise has tried, but few has succeeded.

Building a champion
PlayerAcquiredYear
Grant BalfourTrade w/MIL for Seth McLung2007
Jason BartlettTrade w/MIN for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, Jason Pridie2007
Carl CrawfordDraft pick1999

Cliff FloydFree agent2007
Matt GarzaTrade w/MIN for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, Jason Pridie2007
Eric HinskeMinor League contract2008
J.P. HowellTrade w/Royals for Joey Gathright,Fernando Cortez2006
Akinori IwamuraFree-agent signing2006
Scott KazmirTrade w/Mets for Victor Zambrano,Bartolome Fortunato2004
Evan LongoriaDraft pick2006
Dioner NavarroTrade w/Dodgers for Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson2006
Carlos PenaMinor League contract2007
Troy PercivalFree-agent signing2007
David PriceDraft pick2007
James ShieldsDraft pick2000
Andy SonnanstineDraft pick2004
B.J. UptonDraft pick2002
Dan WheelerTrade w/Astros for Ty Wigginton2007

Former first-round Draft picks like B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Rocco Baldelli and David Price are among 14 former Draft picks on the Rays roster. Other draftees like Carl Crawford, James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine emerged from a farm system that today ranks among the best in baseball.

All that youth provided a foundation, but the roster has been significantly upgraded with veteran additions acquired through trade and free-agent signings like Scott Kazmir, J.P. Howell, Edwin Jackson, Dioner Navarro, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour.

"Our goal has always been to build a consistent winner," Friedman said. "We want to put a winning team on the field, one that is able to sustain success year after year."

Sound player evaluation and outstanding Drafts have helped get the organization going in the right direction, and a flurry of trades Friedman made in recent years helped fill in the gaps.

Friedman picked up Jackson from the Dodgers on Jan. 14, 2006, along with pitcher Chuck Tiffany for right-handers Danys Baez and Lance Carter. Jackson tied the franchise record with 14 wins this season.

Dioner Navarro came over from the Dodgers along with pitcher Jae Seo for catcher Toby Hall, left-hander Mark Hendrickson and cash on June 27, 2006. Navarro, a 24-year-old switch hitter, has blossomed into one of the best backstops in the game and made the All-Star team in only his second full year with the team.

A week before the Navarro deal, Friedman acquired Howell from Kansas City for outfielder Joey Gathright and infielder Fernando Cortez. This season, Howell tied for the Major League lead in relief innings (89 1/3). He tied for the AL lead in strikeouts by a reliever (92). He also led the Majors with the lowest percentage of inherited runners scored (11.8).

Friedman picked up veteran relievers Balfour and Wheeler in the span of 48 hours in late July of last year in a pair of trades that significantly improved the bullpen.

"Getting Wheeler helped change the culture and mindset of our bullpen," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "Getting Wheels helped us in a lot of ways beyond his personal contribution."

The Rays probably wouldn't have won the division if not for another Friedman trade. On Nov. 28, 2007, he sent outfielder Delmon Young, infielder Brendan Harris and outfielder Jason Pridie to Minnesota for shortstop Jason Bartlett and right-hander Matt Garza.

Widely viewed as a deal for a No. 3 starter (Garza), in truth, Bartlett was the more important acquistion.

"We needed to improve our defense up the middle," Friedman said. "[Bartlett's] arrival made our defense better, which helped our entire pitching staff."

Friedman signed Carlos Pena and Eric Hinske to Minor League contracts and the Rays were rewarded when Pena earned Comeback Player of the Year honors last season and then led the team in home runs, runs batted in and total bases this year despite missing 20 games because of a broken finger.

Hinske has filled in all over the diamond as well as provide another veteran pinch-hitting option for manager Joe Maddon.

A $44 million budget precluded pursuit of many of the bigger name free agents, but Friedman's forays in that area have been money well spent: Akinori Iwamura, Troy Percival, Cliff Floyd and Trever Miller.

"When you're a small-market club, it's not like you can go out on a regular basis and fill a hole through free agency, so you start with the core group you have and build around it," Hunsicker said. "I've been a support player for Andrew Friedman and this baseball operation and it's been very rewarding.

"I feel very fortunate to land where I've got a chance to contribute and help a very talented young executive that's going to be very successful in this business for a long time. I think about all the struggles over the years that I had in Houston, and we had our share of success, but the average fan just doesn't realize how difficult it is to get a team to the postseason, let alone do it consistently. To come here and be a part of this, going to the playoffs in three short years, is nothing short of amazing."