The Tampa Bay Rays are the undisputed kings of Moneyball

He won’t be thinking about this as he strides to the mound on Thursday, but with his ferocious arm and devilish creativity, Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole has the opportunity to pitch his way closer to a $40 million a year contract.

Even in the reality-frozen financial world that is pro sports, $40 million is a lot of money. In direct reference to Cole, that would effectively make him worth about 70 Tommy Glasnows … or around 63% of the total roster budget of the Tampa Bay Rays.

All of which makes Game 5 of the American League Division Series between Cole’s Astros and those savvy-spending Rays (with their own flame-throwing starter in Glasnow) an extraordinary tale of dueling baseball philosophies.

How is this reality even possible? How can the Astros, locked and loaded with perhaps the finest collection of arms in baseball history, be one game away from losing to the team with the lowest payroll in the business?

Simple: it’s because baseball is an unpredictable beast, because the postseason conjures up quirky magic, and because Tampa Bay has proven truly masterful at squeezing serviceable productivity from places (and people) that others deemed worthless.

The Rays pick up the pieces discarded by others and conjure value from them. They develop talent judiciously and maximize its potential. They did it well enough this year that they won 96 games while playing in a division stocked with the juggernaut New York Yankees and defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

The Rays are the ultimate modern kings of Moneyball, a title which was unofficially slugged out and won against Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics in last week’s wildcard game. The A’s should have given them a belt for the victory, studded with diamonds that simply need a bit of polishing — for that’s what the Rays find, time and again.

According to Spotrac, the Rays spent $64.2 million on payroll this year to get the 99 wins that have them on the precipice of the AL Championship Series. That’s about $648,000 per victory. Keep in mind that the Astros spent $168.3 million on payroll to win 10 more games than the Rays to this point: roughly $1.54 million per win — or 238% more than Tampa Bay spent.

At least with the Rays and Astros, the relative costs have brought both teams to the postseason and within nine victories of winning the World Series. By comparison, the Detroit Tigers spent $50 million more than the Rays and managed to lose a mind-boggling 114 games. That’s either $1 million per loss or $2.43 million per win for the Tigers; take your pick.

The point is EVERYBODY spent more than the Rays, and only six other teams are still playing October baseball. The Rays pay out so little compared to other teams that if this was the NBA, there would be rules insisting that they pay more.

Tampa Bay is thriving on player development as much as market inefficiency, squeezing value out of players other teams were through with. Yandy Diaz was surplus to the Cleveland Indians; Avisail Garcia was dumped by the White Sox; Tommy Pham fell out of favor with the St. Louis Cardinals; Charlie Morton found there was no more room in Houston as the Astros bulked up their superstar-laden rotation. Those players, and so many others, all became integral pieces in the puzzle the Rays have put together.

“Regardless of the financials behind them, this is the road the Rays have chosen, and they walk it better than almost anyone, the A’s included,” Jon Tayler, late of Sports Illustrated, wrote. “They exploit all the inefficiencies, turn over every stone, get ahead of the analytical and statistical curve and stay there.”

And so now it boils down to this: a Game 5 at Minute Maid Park, where Glasnow, a 22-year-old who spent most of the season injured, will square off against Cole, with a spot in the ALCS against those fearsome Yankees on the line.

Cole is a monster with the numbers to match. He was second in the majors in wins (20), third in ERA (2.50), second in WHIP (0.89) and first in strikeouts (326).

“On talent alone, Cole could be very good, and on guile alone, Cole could be very good,” ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote. “With both, he borders on unhittable.”

Unless baseball’s money markets get the jitters again next summer, Cole will get $40 million or darn close to it, because that’s what great pitchers get. Steven Strasburg makes $38.3 million, just ahead of his Washington Nationals teammate Max Scherzer. Cole’s Astros colleague Justin Verlander is due $33 million next season.

Verlander is a monster too, yet the Rays chased him out of Game 4 on Tuesday night. They fear no one, and there’s no reason why they should. The Astros went huge at the deadline, with their primary move being a blockbuster trade for $35-million man Zack Greinke. The Rays got to him in Game 3, too. When you’ve survived the Yankees and outlasted the Red Sox over 162 games, there’s not much reason to be afraid.

Needless to say, the Rays won’t be in the market for Cole. That’s just not how they do things. They’ve learned how to be mightily competitive without breaking the bank, with a top-tier minor league system ready to push more young talent to the major league roster. But more than that, they don’t spend because they’ve figured out a formula where they don’t have to.

However it pans out, consider this for a moment: there have been plenty of times this season when baseball observers, this column included, have lamented how baseball has become about the haves and have-nots. Rarely has it been described as a good thing for the sport.

Imbalance is not ideal, and this was truly a lopsided year, with four 100-game winners and just as many centenary losers. Yet when the imbalance looks like this — with one team thriving almost as much with a shoestring budget as a rival dicing with punitive luxury tax penalties — the result is undeniably compelling.

Whatever happens next, the Tampa Bay Rays might be the story of the season; a modern miracle of bargaining beauty.