Rays may need to make radical changes to continue success

ST. PETERSBURG

Here's a sobering thought to start your baseball offseason: What if this Rays run is over?

What if we've seen the best we're going to see from this little-franchise-that-could for a while? What if the window of five consecutive winning seasons and three postseason appearances is about to slam shut?

The Rays are at a crossroads. They could somehow piecemeal a competitive team next season around superstars Evan Longoria and David Price. Or they could take a step back.

Only one thing is certain: Changes are coming. They always do with the Rays, win or lose. Such is life when you're a small-market team trying to make it in a big-market league. But this offseason seems more uncertain and unsettling than in the past.

B.J. Upton almost certainly played his last game with the Rays on Wednesday night. Carlos Peña and Luke Scott, too. Everything else is up in the air, from who is coming to who is going. As the Rays face, perhaps, their most important offseason ever, here are a few random thoughts for how the Rays should approach the next few months.

It's time to trade a pitcher

The Rays' formula of building around pitching works. Well, it sort of works.

Despite an anemic offense, the Rays have put together one of the best records in baseball over the past five years.

But let's think about this: The Rays missed the playoffs in 2009, missed the playoffs this season and would have missed the playoffs last season if not for an epic collapse by the Red Sox and one of the most incredible final days in baseball history.

So, let's not act as if the blueprint is foolproof. It doesn't matter how good your pitching is, and this season was about as good as it gets; you have to score runs to win. The Rays are at home today because they didn't score enough runs. They need hitters.

There are three ways to acquire heavy hitters. You can draft and develop them. You can sign free agents. Or you can trade for them.

Well, there are no Mike Trouts or Bryce Harpers coming up from the minors, and the Rays don't have the money to sign Grade A free agents. That leaves a trade as the most likely option, and you have to give up something good to get something good. What do they have that's good? Starting pitching, way more than they need. It's time to part with one or two or three to get someone who can hit baseballs into the gaps and over the fences on a consistent basis.

It's time to trade James Shields

That won't be easy, considering what we saw Tuesday night. Shields might have thrown the best game in Rays history, a two-hit, 15-strikeout masterpiece.

And they still lost. Didn't that just epitomize the Rays? Great pitching completely wasted by a total lack of offense?

Look, I see the argument for keeping Shields. He might be the best No. 2 pitcher in baseball. He eats up 200-plus innings a year, saving wear and tear on the bullpen. He's a bulldog who sets a fine example on and off the field for the Rays' young staff. And as good and promising as this staff is, you can't say there is anyone ready to assume Shields' role as that workhorse behind Price.

But Shields is due $10.25 million next season and turns 31 in December, and if you put him on the block, he likely would fetch a pretty decent bat, maybe even two. Would you prefer to part with a Jeremy Hellickson or Wade Davis? Probably. But if you're another team, you're asking for Shields. He is the Rays' best bait.

Forget Evan Longoria's injury as an excuse

You see Longoria crack three homers Wednesday night and wonder where this team would be if he had missed only two months instead of three. There's no question his absence hurt. A lot. But, injuries happen. Losing one player cannot cripple an entire team. If it does, it means you don't have a good lineup, and they didn't because Peña, Scott and Matt Joyce didn't pick up the slack.

Here's the deal: Hoarding all those pitchers, assuming Longoria won't get hurt next season and expecting to find some good bats on the scrap pile of second-tier free agents is like begging to barely miss the playoffs. Again.

A sobering thought, don't you think?

Evan Longoria, passing Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman, left, and infielder Manny Machado after hitting his first of three homers, proves possibly too indispensable to the Rays while missing three months with an injury.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Evan Longoria, passing Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman, left, and infielder Manny Machado after hitting his first of three homers, proves possibly too indispensable to the Rays while missing three months with an injury.

Rays may need to make radical changes to continue success 10/03/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 11:31am]

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