ST. PETERSBURG — The early reports certainly sound promising. The Rays would like to talk to Carl Crawford about another long-term contract, and Crawford seems willing to listen to what the team has to say.
So it would seem the franchise's all-time leader in most every significant offensive category has a chance to become one of those iconic players who comes up through the farm system and spends the better part of a career in one uniform.
It all sounds grand except for one tiny detail. It will probably never happen.
It isn't that I doubt the sincerity of either side in wanting to get a deal done. It's just that circumstances will likely get in the way.
Some of it is practical. Crawford already signed away his first two seasons of free agency with his last contract. If he signs another long-term deal now, it pretty much means he will never test the open market while in his prime.
Some of it is personal. The artificial turf at Tropicana Field wears on Crawford's legs and, this year, he suggested it led to a back problem. Moving to a ballpark with natural grass could, theoretically, prolong his career.
Some of it is business. There is speculation in the game that salaries could be headed downward this offseason. Anything offered by the Rays would probably reflect that trend, and Crawford would likely reject a deal he sees as below market value.
So does this mean the Rays are being cheap? Or that Crawford is being greedy?
Not really. It's just that their interests probably don't match up the way they once did.
Five years ago, the Rays signed Crawford to a long-term deal when he was 23, and Stu Sternberg was trying to provide some stability in Tampa Bay. The deal worked out nicely for both parties. Crawford got security in exchange for giving up a couple of years of free agency, and the Rays got a future All-Star MVP along with some needed credibility.
By the time that deal ends after next season, Crawford will have earned more than $31 million. Frankly, that's a bargain by baseball standards, and Crawford knows it. The assumption is he will be more inclined to go for broke on his next contract.
And what does that mean?
Well, you can probably start with Johnny Damon's last deal with the Yankees and work your way upward. Damon, like Crawford, is a leftfielder with speed who hits at the top of the order. Crawford is far better defensively, and Damon has been a better hitter.
Damon signed a four-year, $52 million contract with the Yankees before the 2006 season. Considering Damon was 32 at that time and Crawford will be 29 when his deal ends with the Rays, you can safely assume he will be looking for more money and more years.
If that's the case, I just don't see any way that Tampa Bay would be willing to pay $15 million or more for four or five seasons. And, honestly, I don't think they should.
When you are a low-revenue team, it's pretty hard to justify committing 25 percent of your payroll to any one player, particularly one who isn't hitting in the middle of the order.
Which means the real question may not be whether the Rays re-sign Crawford this winter, but whether they trade him. And that has its drawbacks, too.
There is no reason to think the Rays won't be contenders in 2010, so they can't trade Crawford now without an adequate replacement for leftfield. Desmond Jennings is not yet ready, and Matt Joyce looks like he will be platooning in rightfield. There's supposedly going to be a flood of non-tender free agents on the market next month, so the Rays could look for a cheap alternative there.
But the more likely scenario is Tampa Bay holds on to Crawford unless someone blows it away with an offer in the next two months. Then, come next July, the team can decide what to do. If the Rays are sinking, they shop Crawford around to contenders. If they're in contention themselves, the Rays hold on to Crawford then let him walk as a free agent.
Crawford was listed as a Type B free agent in the Elias rankings this week, which means he would bring only one draft choice as compensation. But that ranking is heavily influenced by Crawford's injury-marred 2008 season. If his 2010 season comes anywhere close to his 2009 effort, he will likely be a Type A free agent and would bring two high draft picks if he leaves via free agency.
Either way, chances are pretty good we are heading into Crawford's final days in Tampa Bay.
And whether the end is one month, eight months or 12 months away, the result would be the same.
We would be waving goodbye to the most accomplished player the Rays have ever had.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]