First of all, the rumors are all true. Or reasonably true. Or at least as true as, say, a 2 a.m. infomercial.
Yes, the Rays have had talks about acquiring Roy Halladay. And Cliff Lee. And Victor Martinez. And 238 different relievers.
When you think about it, why wouldn't they? The Rays are in contention, they have some movable pieces and they have plenty of time, if not money, on their hands. So it only makes sense that they learn the going rate for a pennant race rental.
The problem is this leads to far more talking than actual dealing by the time July 31 arrives.
And so the days before the nonwaiver trade deadline are like a continuous game of liar's poker for fans. You ponder the barely believable while searching for the somewhat plausible. You decide which rumors are embellished and which have been purposefully planted.
Above all else, you worry about your team missing a potential deal. Or, even worse, making a bad one.
Which brings us back to Tampa Bay and its many possibilities. The Rays are in a somewhat unique position because they are talented enough and close enough to contention to be buyers next week. But the Rays are also limited by their revenues, which makes it difficult to add payroll or give up salary-controlled prospects, and so they could actually become sellers in the next six days.
Here, then, are some issues to consider within each of the various scenarios:
Acquiring an ace
It is important, at this time, to differentiate between Halladay and Lee. While Lee may be the reigning Cy Young winner in the American League and is a year younger than Halladay, neither his cost nor his value is quite as high.
Halladay is the clear prize in this summer's trade jackpot. It will take multiple high-end prospects to acquire him and a ton of money to keep him when his contract runs out after 2010. The Rays cannot really afford either.
Lee may be easier to obtain, but then it becomes a question of whether the cost is worth his impact on the pennant race. If you look at .500 as a benchmark — because, other than Jeff Niemann, the Rays are within a game or two of .500 no matter who is pitching — then you have to consider how much more value Lee would add.
With two months remaining in the season, he would probably get a dozen starts. Maybe the Rays go 8-4 in those starts. That's two wins more than you would normally expect. Even if they go 10-2 in those starts, that's four more wins. Now four wins could be the difference between finishing in third or earning the wild card. Or it could be the difference between finishing five games out or one game out.
Last season CC Sabathia was the clear difference in Milwaukee making the playoffs. And Rich Harden played a large role for the Cubs. But there have been a lot of midseason trades that have not gone as planned, even when the players lived up to billing. The Expos went 11-6 with Bartolo Colon in 2002 and didn't make the playoffs. Even as far back as 1977, the Reds went 16-4 with Tom Seaver and still didn't make the playoffs.
There are, obviously, no guarantees and considerable risk for the Rays.
Two mitigating factors:
If the Rays can trade Scott Kazmir (and the roughly $25 million remaining on his contract) to a third team, that would alleviate the economic problems.
And the Rays could trade for Lee with the idea of dealing him again in the offseason to recoup some of the prospects they gave up.
Hard to picture the Rays going hard after the Cleveland catcher. He's a nice hitter, but he doesn't fit the franchise's model of quality defense at a premium position. Putting Martinez at first base or designated hitter doesn't make sense either considering Tampa Bay's financial commitments to Carlos Peña and Pat Burrell.
This sounds more like the Rays playing stalking horse to jack the price up if Boston is interested.
Crazy as it sounds, the next few games could have an impact on Kazmir's future. If the Rays continue to struggle to make up ground in the AL East, they may be inclined to see what prospects are available for Kazmir.
Why trade a 25-year-old left-hander with two All-Star appearances on his resume? James Shields is signed through 2012 at less than half the cost of Kazmir. Matt Garza is under the team's control through 2012. David Price and Niemann are under control for years to come. And Wade Davis is lurking at Triple A. If the Rays need payroll flexibility, trading Kazmir is one possibility.
The Rays pride themselves on taking calculated risks, so this option is probably the least appealing. On the other hand, it probably makes the most sense. Tampa Bay's future has been plotted too well to risk ruining it for one pennant race, yet the Rays are too close to contention to give up before Aug. 1.
John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.