Crawford, Rays commiserate in the poorhouse

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Carl Crawford, the heart of the Rays, will be a free agent after the season
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The scene, so familiar the past two years, played out again Tuesday night. The Tampa Bay Rays, an unparalleled collection of young baseball-playing talent, hugged and jumped and celebrated together. They won their first game of the season in dramatic fashion, and their whooping included no pretense. They were thrilled for the fans, for each other and for the man in the middle of their makeshift mosh pit.

His name is Carl Crawford(notes), and he is, very simply, the Tampa Bay Rays. Crawford is a 28-year-old left fielder for the Rays. He has won four American League stolen-base titles, hit .300 or better four times and is generally considered the best defensive player at his position in the major leagues. Crawford remains the lone link between the historically disastrous Rays of the early 2000s and the wildly talented Rays of the new decade – a team that, despite limited resources, fields a lineup with almost every bit the talent of their top American League East foes, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

"I've seen it grow from nothing to something, and I've been fortunate to be a part of that," Crawford said. "When something like that happens, it has a special place inside you. So, you know, you remember that."

Crawford paused. He knew the next sentence needed to escape from his lips. It still pained him to say it.

"And then," he said, "you do what you have to do."

Because he epitomizes the Rays, and because the Rays players and executives revere him, they don't want to think about what he will have to do seven months from now. The World Series will be over, and Crawford will officially be a free agent. Tampa Bay's payroll clocks in around $70 million this year, and it's a number for which franchise owner Stuart Sternberg is stretching. It likely won't stay that high. Crawford will command $15 million a year, minimum, on the open market. Never has a pending divorce been so obvious.

Each side dances around the subject. Crawford wants to stay. Rays general manager Andrew Friedman wants him to stay. Only baseball isn't a game with a socialistic bent. The sport's poor get insulted and injured, and everyone goes about their merry, money-making way.

"We expect him to be a big part of it this year – and, hopefully, for many more years to come," Friedman said. "But we understand the situation."

Which is that come opening day 2011, Carl Crawford, heart of the Rays, will be just the latest mercenary on a big-money team – and the first in a long line of Rays who could chase green in other pastures. First baseman Carlos Pena(notes) hits free agency next year. Shortstop Jason Bartlett(notes) follows in 2011, center fielder B.J. Upton(notes) and relief ace J.P. Howell(notes) in 2012. Starter Matt Garza(notes) and super utilityman Ben Zobrist(notes) could hit paydirt in 2013.

Even though Friedman maneuvers deftly in almost all respects of his job – he locked up the team's best player, Evan Longoria(notes), through 2016, circumvents service-time problems with aplomb and built the best farm system in the minor leagues – he alone cannot stop the inevitable. In less than a year, the Rays will bleed talent. To cauterize themselves would take a miracle.

"It's too bad," said Scott Kazmir(notes), the former Rays ace whom they traded to the Los Angeles Angels last year. "I really hope they don't turn into a situation like Oakland, where everyone says, 'All those guys used to play for them?' It's going to, though. All that talent is going to go, and there's nothing they can do about it."

As much as Kazmir's prediction sounds like doomsday, Crawford agreed: "He might have a point." And as the Rays compete in the best division since baseball realigned in 1994, they face a reality nothing can change.

Well, almost nothing.

Baseball is readying for a labor war next year. The union on Tuesday alluded to a potential collusion claim from the most recent free-agent class. Major League Baseball wants to expand the draft internationally and institute a hard slotting system. The players are tired of the service-time manipulation that keeps them from millions of dollars. The ever-present drug-testing issue lingers. Big-market owners hate subsidizing smaller-market teams which refuse to spend their share of revenue sharing.

And gathering more than any of those issues is MLB commissioner Bud Selig's suggestion of realignment, which might as well be called The Plan to Rescue the Rays. Selig is not pushing realignment out of any particular affinity for Tampa Bay. More than a decade after the team arrived, it's still an area masquerading as a big-league city, with tickets remaining for opening day less than a week out and a local radio station airing Yankees games 1,000 miles from the Bronx. Neither Tampa nor St. Petersburg, Fla., seems particularly inclined to publicly fund a new stadium, and without such revenues, the Rays will continue to take the Yankees' welfare money and troll around baseball's thrift store.

"We can't pretend like we're someone we're not," Friedman said. "We have to understand and appreciate our challenges and limitations and operate within them. We're confident we can do so in a manner that allows us to remain competitive for as long as we can in this division. It's a big distinction."

Still, it's that very act of competing – and, in 2008, prevailing – that serves as the impetus behind Selig's final big act as the sport's overlord. He owned the Milwaukee Brewers. He understands the perils of small markets. He realizes the union never will agree to a salary cap, and if there's anything within his power to balance competitiveness, he'll do it.

The solutions are thin. Splitting up the Yankees and Red Sox is a non-starter. The floating realignment concept – offered by a panel Selig hand-picked to suggest improvements for the game – is ludicrous, something Selig full well realizes. Adding another wild card increases revenue but doesn't get rid of an unbalanced schedule that forces the Rays to face teams with budgets two and three times their size – literally – 18 times while other American League teams get the Yankees and Red Sox as few as six times.

Everyone in baseball is cognizant of the sport's flaw: For the Rays to compete, they must overcome themselves and their limitations. They can scout and develop players better than any team in baseball – "It has almost become a cliché at this point," Friedman said, "but it's more important to us than any other team in baseball with whom we're competing against" – but it guarantees them nothing, certainly not a year-in, year-out chance.

One reason Tampa Bay feels comfortable with Crawford's imminent departure is Desmond Jennings(notes), a 23-year-old who – because he is black and owns a football player's build – draws immediate comparisons to Crawford. Jennings is the top prospect in a Rays system that is the envy of 29 teams. Wade Davis(notes) made the team as the No. 5 starter; right-hander Jeremy Hellickson(notes) will arrive midsummer at the latest; the Rays love Alex Torres (acquired in the Kazmir deal) as a left-handed specialist; and another wave, led by former No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham(notes) and minor-league strikeout leader Matt Moore, should arrive by 2013.

It keeps Friedman hopeful that the Rays can survive in the AL East even if realignment fails to place them in a better situation – "better" ever subjective, of course. Howell said the Rays "are who we are because of the Yankees and Red Sox. They make us better. I like going against that money. This organization can actually do that, and it's rare."

Still, the implication in the Tampa are and other small markets is stark: Money wins, and baseball ought do to whatever it can to even out finances and reward teams such as the Rays for winning thanks to talent-acquisition acumen that doesn't involve eight- and nine-digit contracts.

"Anything you do that you feel strongly improves the game, you should be aggressive to do it," Friedman said. "We'll debate a lot of different things. If there are things that genuinely have a good chance to improve the game, we should do it. If not, we shouldn't. I'm very biased on the subject. "I mean, look at us."

For those who looked at the Rays on Aug. 29, 2009, confusion set in. Kazmir was the pitcher around whom Tampa Bay built its staff, twice an All-Star, four straight years with an ERA below 4.00, and here they were, only 4½ games back of Boston for the wild card, trading him.

The deal, even more than Crawford's likely exit, typifies the Rays' existence: When a player does not produce for what they're paying him – Kazmir was due at least $22.5 million for this year and next – they get rid of him. Friedman, a 33-year-old who worked at Bear Stearns before becoming a baseball executive, forces himself to treat players like commodities because doing otherwise may compromise what little margin of error he is allowed.

"That's the business part," Kazmir said. "You have to understand what situation they're in and what situation you're in. It took awhile to come to terms with it. You never want to get traded but, at the same time, I couldn't pick a better situation."

The Angels were the perfect trading partner for Friedman. They've got the financial wherewithal to swallow a contract like Kazmir's if he bombs out, and they were willing to offer Tampa Bay three prospects, each of whom offers six years before free agency. If even one of them hits – and based on spring training, Sean Rodriguez(notes), a utilityman in the Zobrist mold, looks like a winner, while Rays executives love Torres and third baseman Matt Sweeney as well – the trade was worthwhile.

But Kazmir is right when he alludes to the reload-and-unload philosophy Oakland perfected during its early 2000s heyday. Jason Giambi(notes), Miguel Tejada(notes), Tim Hudson(notes), Mark Mulder(notes), Barry Zito(notes), Dan Haren(notes), Rich Harden(notes), Ted Lilly(notes), Jermaine Dye(notes) and plenty more passed through. The only star left from those teams is third baseman Eric Chavez(notes), whom the A's chose to sign to a long-term deal, and he has played in 121 games the past three years. Oakland last finished over .500 in 2006.

"We're not going to become this factory where we nurture these young players and give them away," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't see that. I just don't see it."

So he tries to appreciate what he has now. With the Rays trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, with Baltimore Orioles closer Mike Gonzalez(notes) pitching, Crawford ripped a bases-loaded double down the right-field line. The team spilled out of the dugout, mobbed catcher Kelly Shoppach(notes) at home and then made its way to Crawford.

If Longoria is the heart of the Rays going forward, Crawford is at least the blood, the thing that shows up everywhere. The players talk about him privately and lament what November will bring. They think winning will keep the Rays together. They are naïve.

"They can't get rid of him," Kazmir said. "They can't."

"Everything you see around here," Howell said, "is a reflection of him."

"It's not a comforting thought," Maddon said, "to think you may lose him."

Crawford said he won't talk about his future now that the season has started. His agent, Brian Peters, doesn't plan on negotiating with the Rays during the season, which ensures Crawford will hit the open market and see the riches that don't exist in Florida – where, if they even bother with a contract proposal, it will end up near half of his biggest offer.

"You just want to get what you deserve, market value or whatever it is," Crawford said. "I'm definitely not in a rush to leave. It's not a guarantee I'll leave, but it's the way things are sometimes."

Baseball's crossroads is quite treacherous. Carl Crawford and the Rays deserve each other, and their relationship is practically forbidden under the current system. Then again, no viable alternative exists, nothing that will help this great team stuck in a meat-grinder division because of its geographical location. Which means Crawford will steal some bases, rap some hits and help the Rays contend this year.

And then he'll do what he has to do because the sport gives him no other choice.