As we’ve seen time and time again, a massive payroll is no guarantee of success (wipe that grin off your face, Mr. Met) and contending on the cheap is not impossible (eg. Minnesota, Oakland). At the same time, when your entire team is being paid less than the combined salaries of Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown, there’s little margin for error, if not the overwhelming sense that the season is over before it has begun. With that grim reality in mind, the Tampa Tribune’s Carter Gaddis catches up with Devil Rays manager Lou Pinella.

The competitor in Piniella won’t let him quite put aside the tendency to expect better the next time around. But the realist within him understands an offseason spent basically holding the line in terms of talent isn’t exactly conducive to radical improvement.

So, when he let slip during an interview session Thursday at Tropicana Field that finishing the upcoming season with victories in the mid- 70s would be a reasonable goal, he instantly backed off.

“You know what? I’m even going to scratch that,” he said. “I’ll go with improve over last year. That’s it. Let’s just improve over last year, and we’ll be happy.”

The moves this offseason by General Manager Chuck LaMar are, for the most part, done.

The Rays committed about $5 million in base salary to a shortstop- turned-third baseman, Alex Gonzalez; 37-year-old second baseman Roberto Alomar; outfielder Danny Bautista; and designated hitter Josh Phelps.

LaMar also traded 21-year-old reliever Chad Gaudin to Toronto for backup catcher Kevin Cash and invited a few interesting names to spring training from among a list of minor- league signees that includes infielder Brandon Larson, outfielder Dee Brown and starting pitcher Jimmy Haynes.

In many ways, it was a frustrating offseason for the Rays. Already limited by a mandate from ownership to limit the payroll to around $32 million (including player incentives), the organization was stunned by the loss until June of center fielder Rocco Baldelli (torn ACL, left knee).

“What it probably did more than anything else was kept us from getting a starting pitcher, because we had to go out and get an outfielder,” Piniella said. “And we’re happy to get Bautista, don’t get me wrong. He’s a nice fit here. But we wouldn’t have had to go sign a frontline outfielder.”

Instead of acquiring a relatively low-priced veteran pitcher (Esteban Loaiza went to Washington for $2.9 million), the Rays will enter spring training Feb. 18 with a starting rotation that could conceivably include no pitchers older than 28-year-old Rob Bell.

Bell and Mark Hendrickson, 30, are the veterans of the group. The others in contention for starting jobs are 21-year-old Scott Kazmir, 24- year-old Dewon Brazelton, 24-year- old Doug Waechter and 24-year-old Seth McClung (all ages are as of Opening Day).

Bell has made 105 major-league starts. Hendrickson has made 64 – the same number as Kazmir, Brazelton, Waechter and McClung combined.

“Our pitching is very young, but it’s healthy,” Piniella said. “The first two years I’ve been here, we’ve always gone to camp with question marks health-wise and starting the season health-wise. We’ve got some good, strong young arms. We need to improve them over last year, but I think that can be done.”

The bullpen, which ranked third in the American League in ERA (3.90) last year, will return virtually intact. A decision must be made on how to use Rule 5 draftee Angel Garcia, a hard-throwing 21-year-old who has never played at a level higher than Class A.

Piniella welcomed the chance to use second baseman Jorge Cantu in a utility role, now that Alomar is in the fold.

“Cantu’s going to play. I like him,” Piniella said. “He did a nice job here last year. We need somebody who can play all three positions. And we need to rest these kids. And Cantu’s perfect. He’ll get a nice education, too, from veteran players.”

(when stadia banned pepper games, players turned their attention to the far cruder pastime of “Scratch Off”, of which a young Pinella was an acknowledged grandmaster).

You know the outlook is bleak if the one-that-got-away is Esteban Loiza. The continued employment of Tampa GM Chuck LeMar is one of baseball’s great mysteries, and unless ownership have some secret scheme to move to Las Vegas or Northern Virginia (a cursory check of the newspapers might reveal that they are late on both counts) their goals are equally hard to figure out.