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As Matt Garza leaves the Tampa Bay Rays, the outlook for today dims, but hope might be on the horizon

Another familiar face is headed toward the door, and there is sadness at the thought of it.

Matt Garza, the pitcher with the combustible arm and the combustible head, is about to become the latest ex-Ray. He is packing up his considerable talent and heading toward the exit, just as Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña and Jason Bartlett and Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano did. In his place are four or five names that might fit into someday's lineup.

And so the lessening of the Rays continues, and there is sadness in that, too.

They are not as good as they were last season, and to tell the truth, they are not as good as they were Thursday, either. You can debate how much Garza will be missed or whether he and maturity ever would have found each other. But it's fair to assume the Rays would have been better in 2011 with Garza than without him.

These are somber days for the Rays. There have been too many farewells to too many favorites this offseason. It has been an unpopular offseason, filled with too many reminders of how much smaller this team's Visa limit is than the other teams in the AL East.

Now Garza is going. And the saddest part is this realization:

Whether you like the deal or hate it, whether you think the Rays got worse for the present or better for the future, it was one the Rays had to make.

Look, I'd love to rip this deal. I'd love to summon my outrage and call the Rays cheap and scream that if they want a stadium, by golly, they need to bring everyone back. But I've seen the empty seats. And I've seen other low-revenue teams deal players they would prefer to keep.

This is the reality of a team that has to compete against others who have as much as a $150 million head start. It is a franchise that cannot afford to fix a hole by tossing money into it. It is a franchise that has to anticipate next year's roster, and the year after's, and try to address its shortcomings at the minor-league (read: affordable) level.

Let's face it: The Yankees don't make this trade. The Red Sox don't make this trade. They hang onto their 15-game winner, and if they need a shortstop in two years, well, they'll just buy Pittsburgh's. Or Kansas City's. That's the safe approach.

Over the years, however, the Rays have admitted they can't afford to play it safe. They have to take a few risks. They have to make unpopular moves and then endure the outcry. Other teams, richer teams, might play the game one season at a time. The Rays have to have a multiseason plan.

Ask yourself this: Before the Garza trade, where did you expect the Rays to finish? Did you expect them to win 90? Maybe 85? Maybe 80? Did you expect them to make the playoffs?

The less you expected, the easier it is to understand this trade. If the Rays weren't going to make a playoff run this year, why shouldn't they try to get into better shape for 2012?

For small-revenue teams, this is reality. Do you think San Diego wanted to lose Adrian Gonzalez? Do you think Kansas City was trying to get rid of Zack Greinke? Do you think Miami wanted to move Dan Uggla?

Still, there are questions. Why Garza, for instance? And why now?

Why Garza is easy. Except for David Price, whom the Rays weren't going to trade, Garza brought the biggest return. You weren't going to get three of the Cubs' top 10 prospects for James Shields.

Why now is a little more surprising. There was some thought the Rays might want to wait to see how their season was going and then move a pitcher (Garza) at the trade deadline. But if they believed in the package the Cubs were offering, why should they wait?

Besides, the Rays had a surplus in their rotation, and the notion of putting the spare arm in the bullpen isn't always the best thing. What if the guy a team wanted to trade for gets hurt? What if he gets shelled?

With Garza, that was always one of the two possibilities. You were never quite sure what the voices in his head were telling him. He was capable of getting shelled for seven earned runs against Baltimore on July 20 and capable of coming back six days later to throw a no-hitter against Detroit. He was capable of striking out 10 Rangers on Aug. 17 and capable of going his next six starts without striking out more than four.

As Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune wrote of Garza: "There's a flashing yellow light for any team putting its future in his hands."

So is it possible the Rays thought this was as much return as they were ever going to get for Garza? Sure, it's possible. Is it possible they were concerned about his price tag? Sure, that's possible, too.

That said, Garza was one of the symbols of the Rays' turnaround. For a lot of people, the good days started when Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman traded Delmon Young for Garza and Bartlett.

Time was, that wasn't a popular trade, either. Now, both of them are gone, and that's not popular, either.

Is it a good thing, then, that the Rays traded Garza?

As with any trade, the answer is easy: It depends on what they got in return.

At this point, no one can be sure. It is intriguing that the names possibly include the Cubs' minor-league player of the year (Brandon Guyer) and their minor-league pitcher of the year (Chris Archer) and their shortstop of the future (Hak-Ju Lee) and a catcher who might be ready for the majors (Robinson Chirinos). If the Rays hit on two of these players, and maybe get a fringe player as a third, it's going to eventually be a good deal.

As far as 2011? This season looks like a little steeper climb.

No, it isn't hopeless. The Rays are still going to have one of the better rotations in the league with Price-Shields-Jeff Niemann-Wade Davis-Jeremy Hellickson. They're still going to play good defense. If they can turn Garza's money into another bat or two, they can be competitive.

If you expect anything more, you might have to wait. For the fans of low-revenue teams, that's the trade-off.

As Matt Garza leaves the Tampa Bay Rays, the outlook for today dims, but hope might be on the horizon 01/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 11:26pm]
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