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Rays make another smart move with Kazmir deal

Signing Scott Kazmir was a huge step in ensuring this team stays competitive.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Signing Scott Kazmir was a huge step in ensuring this team stays competitive.

ST. PETERSBURG — As baseball plays go, this one was clean and aggressive. In the years to come, you might even remember it as brilliant.

It happened as swiftly as B.J. Upton chasing down a fly ball. It was as bold as Carl Crawford rounding second and heading for third. If you think of it as a statement, it was as powerful as anything that has left Carlos Pena's bat lately.

Just like that, the Rays had won another one.

Scott Kazmir, it turns out, is going to hang around town awhile.

The Rays wrapped up another chunk of their future Wednesday night. Armed with confidence, commitment and the numbers on Stuart Sternberg's credit card, the Rays signed Kazmir to an extension that keeps him under their control through the 2012 season.

Remember that window of opportunity that was in front of the Rays?

As it turns out, it was just propped open a little wider.

The Rays keep doing this. For a team that isn't exactly swimming in payroll, they keep investing in their own products. James Shields. Evan Longoria. Pena. Dan Wheeler.

And now, Kazmir. For a long time, Kazmir was considered the Player Least Likely to Grip a Pen among the Rays. He was the reluctant signee, and for a long time, it seemed he could not wait to get to free agency.

After this signing, it is easy to wonder who is next. Upton? Another few years with Crawford? Jason Bartlett? At this point, no one would surprise you. Evidently, executive vice president Andrew Friedman keeps his contract extensions in his right-hand drawer for easy access. Show a sufficient amount of promise, and he'll toss one at you, too.

"I'm sure this won't be the last time we have an announcement," Friedman said. "We've got a tremendous nucleus of players on the field, and it's important to keep these guys playing together for a long period of time. Our goal is not to get to October for one season. It's to be able to sustain it year over year."

True, there is a certain amount of risk (see: Baldelli, Rocco). That's true with any investment, but particularly when young pitchers are involved. At these prices, a twinge in an elbow can be an awfully expensive thing to purchase. Even if the player stays healthy, a team is betting his ability will progress as quickly as his paycheck.

All of that said, this was a terrific signing for the Rays.

And if you doubt that, think of it this way: There is no way that a lesser front office (read: Tampa Bay, 1998-2005) would have risked it. The easy thing to do, the safe thing, would have been to sit on the wallet and wait and hope to trade a young star at the last minute.

At the core, that's the best part of this signing. It's one more piece of evidence that this front office has a plan. The Rays are certain enough of their blueprint, confident enough in their evaluations and committed enough to spend the money. Also, they seem to be smart enough to know that every signing won't work out as planned.

If the Rays are convinced that Kazmir's recent elbow tenderness was nothing to worry about — judging from the size of the check, they must be — then he seems worth the investment. Kazmir, 24, has long been considered one of the best young pitchers in the game, and for months, the Rays have tried to buy off a couple of years of his free agency.

Who can blame them? The thought of having Shields and Kazmir, Kazmir and Shields through the next presidential election was awfully tempting.

Turns out, it tempted Kazmir, too.

Who knows? Kazmir says it wasn't the case, but perhaps that twinge in the elbow, and the sight of Baldelli's struggles, made guaranteed money look better. Perhaps it was the feel of an improved clubhouse that convinced him there are worse places to draw a paycheck.

Again, a team has to pick its spots when it comes to handing out long-term contracts. It cannot be wrong and overpay lesser players. It cannot wrap up too many players or else most of the payroll might be committed to a handful of athletes.

On the other hand, it cannot let greatness go too soon, either. All small-market teams know that. Overnight, an athlete can move from a player a team cannot afford to lose to one it cannot afford to keep. The worst day of all for a team such as the Rays is when a hometown favorite comes back to town in another team's colors.

Once again, the Rays managed to push that day a little further into the future on Wednesday.

Who knew? After all these years of looking for any plan at all, the Rays have finally come up with a good one.

Rays make another smart move with Kazmir deal 05/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2008 12:11pm]

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