ST. PETERSBURG — If you have followed them from the beginning, then you know the story of the Rays is easily recalled. In a nutshell, they were awful for a very long time. Then they got good. And, in between, there was Carl Crawford.
To all concerned, Crawford is the bridge. He is the pike, the passage, the conduit. He was with the team for the 106th loss in 2002 and for the Game 7 victory in 2008. In the days when there was little hope of winning, Crawford made the Rays worth watching. When Jason Conti was in right, when Felix Escalona was at short, when insanity was in charge, you at least knew, most nights, Crawford was in left.
He is, by almost any argument, the greatest player in franchise history. He has more hits, more doubles, more triples, more runs, more RBIs, more stolen bases, more moments than any Ray who came before him. And now, this coming week, Crawford will play in his third All-Star Game, another Tampa Bay record.
So it seems as good a time as any to point out all that Crawford has accomplished. For there are times when we seem to take him for granted. We get caught up in Evan Longoria's arrival in '08 or in Ben Zobrist's emergence in '09. We talk of the shaman in the dugout or the savant in the front office, and we forget that Crawford was here before them all.
The Rays play their 1,868th game today, and Crawford has been around for 1,127 of them. Yet, as his tenure grows by another day, there is a disturbing realization: We have no idea how many more Rays games are in Crawford's future.
He is 27 and just entering the prime of his career, but his future in Tampa Bay is more tenuous than ever. You look at Longoria, and you know he is here for the long haul. At least another four years, and probably seven. James Shields is signed through 2011, with options through 2014. David Price has years to go before free agency.
But Crawford is nearing a crossroads. It is nothing personal. It is nothing nefarious. It is more a confluence of timing, economics, value and position.
Here, then, are the pertinent facts:
• The Rays have more payroll commitments than they say they can handle in 2010.
• Crawford will make at least $10 million next season, assuming the Rays pick up the option in the final year of his contract.
• In terms of commodities, a leftfielder is easier to replace than a lot of positions.
So what does it all mean? At the very least, it means the Rays have a difficult decision to make. Keeping Matt Garza? Keeping Shields or Jason Bartlett? Because of positions and contract situations, those are pretty close to no-brainers.
But the money and circumstances make the Crawford decision far more intriguing.
The Rays could look at his fabulous start in '09 and decide a contract extension is in order. Or they could look at their finances and Crawford's current trade value and decide their long-term future is best served by dealing him in the offseason, possibly even in the next few weeks. Or, the Rays could decide they have too much at stake as contenders in 2009-10 and choose to allow Crawford to play out the remainder of his contract, with the team getting additional draft picks if he eventually signs elsewhere.
Which scenario makes the most sense?
Depends on the day of the week.
That is not meant to be facetious, nor is it a dodge. Because there is no clear-cut answer, the odds will shift depending on other circumstances. That could mean Tampa Bay's place in the standings. Or the specifics of trade offers. Or the contract situations of other players on the Rays roster.
What we know for sure is the payroll is now about $63 million, and owner Stu Sternberg says that is beyond their means. With Crawford, Carlos Peña, Scott Kazmir, Pat Burrell, Shields and Longoria getting raises next season, and with Bartlett, Garza, B.J. Upton, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Gabe Gross in arbitration situations, the payroll could be heading toward $70 million.
It is possible the Rays could deal Kazmir ($8 million in 2010) or Burrell ($9 million) to get the payroll in line, but neither is having a strong season and that means trading them when their stock is low. Peña, who will make $10.125 million next season in the final year of his contract, is also a possible trade option. But Crawford, at least today, is the most attractive trade commodity.
"I've only got so much time left on my contract. I don't know what's going to happen," Crawford said. "One thing is for sure, I would definitely like to stay a Ray. But who knows what's going to happen."
Approving Crawford's current long-term contract was one of the first moves made when Sternberg was acquiring control of the franchise in 2005. He talked Friday of the value of that decision coming to fruition on the field today.
He also recalled the Brooklyn Dodgers of his youth and the way rosters remained largely intact for entire generations. And he talked of the poignancy of Crawford getting his American League championship ring in a ceremony this year.
"I got a little choked up," Sternberg said.
Baseball's economic system has changed through the years, and the game has changed with it. More than ever, decisions are made because of the numbers in a ledger, rather than the numbers on the back of a baseball card.
"I know they have decisions to make, and hopefully I'll be a part of the picture," Crawford said. "They've definitely got options."
In the meantime, there is another All-Star Game to be played.
Another pennant to be chased.