After last night’s heart-stopping action, the small-budget Tampa Bay Rays are still alive. Not only are they in the playoffs, they’re probably the hottest team going in, with one of the scariest pitching staffs you could ever face in a short series. As unlikely as it was for the Rays to crash the 2008 playoff party, this year’s run is even more incredible.

The movie Moneyball has started its run in theaters and, while there are all kinds of critiques from the baseball community (like this one), it tells a story of Billy Beane and the A’s competing with the likes of the Yankees despite a huge payroll disparity. In the time-period covered, 2001-2002, the A’s lost three big names from their 2001 playoff club (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen) to free agency. To fill those slots, Beane used sabermetric advice from a depicted composite that includes Paul DePoedesta to bring in the likes of Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford and David Justice. Against the wishes of the established scouting crew. That’s the story the movie tells.

What is not mentioned is that stud pitchers Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson were still in the fold, along with offensive stars Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada. These top-notch players were all still affordable at that point in their earning careers. Zito made $500,000 as he went 23-5 and won the AL Cy Young Award while Tejada cost Beane $3.6M in his MVP season.

This is not to denigrate the movie, or even the book by Michael Lewis, which may not have interpreted the story with total accuracy. Go see the movie, it’s a great couple of hours for a baseball fan and stats nut. But be aware that there are innaccuracies, as in any  historical movie, sports or otherwise, and they have quickly been detailed by some of the leaders in the baseball blogosphere.

But look what the Tampa Bay Rays have done this season. The clock would have struck midnight for most other clubs after the three-year run that the coming-of-age Rays have had (2007 Rockies, 2005 Astros?). A World Series appearance in 2008 was followed by a return to the playoffs in 2010. Nice. But this past offseason saw an exodus of epic proportions. Matt Garza. Carl Crawford. The bullpen, for crying out loud. Dan Wheeler, Rafael Soria, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate….yeah, ALL OF THEM, gone.

So what did Andrew Friedman, Executive VP of Baseball Operations for the Rays, do about the loss of talent? He gave field manager Joe Maddon a roster with an Opening Day payroll of a little over $41M (USA Today) and Maddon won 91 games and earned a wild card spot.

Friedman signed Johnny Damon for 1 yr/$5.25M and avoided arbitration with B.J. Upton with a 1 yr/$4.82M contract. Kyle Farnsworth inked a 1 yr/$3.25M deal and became a stud closer. It also helped to have Evan Longoria, James Shields and Ben Zobrist under contract from previous shrewd deals. (Cot’s Contracts)

Enjoy the movie, it’s great. See the concept in action in the this year’s post-season. Tampa Bay faces Texas in the ALDS, a club with a $92M payroll. If they get past that, it’s either the Tigers ($105.7M) or the Yankees ($202.7M).

Maybe Beane and Co. did change the game.

Playoff Team Payroll (BizofBaseball.com)