ST. PETERSBURG — LF Carl Crawford packed up his locker Wednesday afternoon like he does after every season.
But this time it felt a little different, as it could be the final time he does so as a Ray.
Though Crawford, who is likely in for a huge payday as a free agent, said he'd love to return, he seems resigned to playing elsewhere next year as the Rays are planning to cut their payroll significantly from the team-record $73 million.
"I know it's a high possibility I probably won't be back next year," said Crawford, 29. "It hasn't sunk in yet."
As Crawford said goodbye to teammates, he reflected on how special his nine big-league seasons have been with the Rays, the only club he has ever known.
"I was 17 when I came here, it's a big part of my life," he said. "There's always going to be a place for the Tampa Bay area in my heart. And seeing how everything went from one extreme to the next will always be a memorable moment for me."
He said playing on natural grass "won't be a big deal" in his decision about where he signs because he has learned how to prepare his body for turf, but he acknowledged money "is a big part of everything."
"When it comes down to it, you just want to go somewhere where you're comfortable," he said. "And obviously the financial part, you just want to be paid for what you do, I guess."
If Crawford leaves, he hopes he'd be welcomed back at the Trop, even if it's in a different uniform. "I didn't leave on bad terms here," he said. "That's the way we wanted it, both sides were happy. So it'll be nice to come back here and get a warm reception. I've always liked this area and I still might stay here in the offseason."
'MEANS THE WORLD': The Rays also may not be able to afford two other big free agents, 1B Carlos Peña and closer Rafael Soriano. Peña hopes to stay, saying the organization "means the world to me" and "I almost feel like I have this organization running through my veins."
That being said, Peña, 32, who made $10.125 million this season, wants to see what his options are.
"I think we worked really hard to get to this point, to free agency, and it's our wish to take advantage of the best opportunities out there," he said. "My wish is that the best opportunity and the best situation for me is here in Tampa Bay, obviously."
THE PEN PUZZLE: The Rays bullpen, which ranked first in the American League in ERA this season, could have a different look next year. RHPs Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour and Chad Qualls and LHP Randy Choate are eligible for free agency. RHP Dan Wheeler has a $4 million team option, and RHP Lance Cormier is a potential non-tender candidate.
All have said they're interested in returning. But as Wheeler, who has spent seven years over two stints with the Rays, says, "It's out of our control."
"When you sign, they say, 'Make the decision tough on us,' " Balfour said. "Go out there and perform and do a good job and make the decision hard on them. They've got plenty of guys that want to come back, it's just a matter if they want to keep them."
STAYING TOGETHER: Manager Joe Maddon said he "absolutely" plans to bring back his full coaching staff. All are signed through the 2011 season, except for assistant to the pitching coach Stan Boroski. Bench coach Dave Martinez has been mentioned in connection with several managerial openings.
SHOPP CHOP: Maddon said anyone blaming C Kelly Shoppach for Tuesday's loss doesn't know what he's talking about. "It's totally wrong and unfair and it's so bizarre,'' Maddon said. "In some ways, I'm just a little disappointed in people not understanding the game. Kelly had no negative impact on that game (Tuesday) whatsoever. He's here for a reason, and that's to hit left-handed pitching. … We gave up two runs on misplays at first base. Of course he did have that throwing error into leftfield, and that's going to happen."
Shoppach said he had no regrets about how he played and didn't really care about the criticisms. "I don't know what's being said, and I won't know because I'll turn it off for another month or two,'' he said.
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.