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Rays, reliever Wheeler agree to three-year contract

Dan Wheeler, who rejoined the Rays in July, agreed to a three-year deal that will keep him pitching near his Seminole home.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Dan Wheeler, who rejoined the Rays in July, agreed to a three-year deal that will keep him pitching near his Seminole home.

BALTIMORE — For right-hander Dan Wheeler, the benefits of signing a new three-year deal were matters of location: His family wouldn't have to go anywhere, and he liked where the Rays are headed.

As the Rays made the expected moves Tuesday of picking up outfielder Carl Crawford's 2009 option and declining outfielder Rocco Baldelli's, they made the unexpected move of giving Wheeler a three-year, $10.5-million deal that includes a 2011 option.

"Obvious I live here in Tampa Bay, and keeping my family intact was a big part of my decision," Wheeler said. "And I just like where this organization is going. There's a future here. & I just want to be part of this."

Wheeler, 30, was headed to free agency after this season; now — despite coming off a poor 2007 season — he appears to be a part of the long-term plan.

"We've worked hard to try to address our bullpen situation, and we feel like Dan will be an important part of our bullpen going forward and getting important outs late in games for us," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "I think he'd be the first to say last year was not a typical Dan Wheeler season, and all parties agree this year and future years will be much better."

Wheeler — who lives year-round in Seminole and is the son-in-law of Rays TV broadcaster Dewayne Staats — signed a $2.875-million, one-year contract before the season to avoid arbitration. The new deal, which was first broached during the offseason, replaces that, with Wheeler getting $2.8-million this season, $3.2-million in 2009, $3.5-million in 2010 and either a $1-million buyout or a $4-million salary in 2011. He will also make a donation of at least $150,000 to the team charitable foundation.

Wheeler, who started his career with the Rays and returned in July after successful stints with the Mets and Astros, was 0-5 with a 5.76 ERA in 25 games for the Rays last season. He is targeted primarily for seventh-inning setup work but does have 25 major-league saves. In 327 games, he is 12-26 with a 4.09 ERA.

There couldn't have been much debate about picking up Crawford's option for a modest $8.5-million in what, had the Rays not signed him long term, would have been his first year of free agency. The Rays hold a $10-million option for 2010, and both sides Tuesday mentioned the idea of continuing the relationship.

Crawford, in a statement released by the team, said: "I'm very happy. I would like to thank the Rays organization and Stu Sternberg for believing in me. I'm grateful for the opportunity for this day. I'm looking forward to being here for a long time because I think we're at the start of something great going on here. I want to do well for them and represent the team in a classy manner."

Friedman said: "From our perspective we hope he'll be part of what we're doing here for a long time. & Hopefully, this is one of a series of contracts that keeps Carl in Tampa Bay for a long time."

With Baldelli on the 60-day disabled list and his playing status uncertain due to a rare condition that leaves him extremely fatigued, the decision on his option was obvious, too, and saved the Rays $4-million.

Though they have to pay him $4-million (half this November, half next) to buy out his options and allow him to become a free agent after this season, they otherwise would have been on the hook for at least $8-million — a $6-million salary in 2009 and a $2-million buyout of the 2020-11 joint option. Plus, they can still re-sign him.

"The most important thing right now is to address Rocco's health situation, and once we're able to move beyond that we'll do everything in our power to keep him in a Rays uniform," Friedman said.

Baldelli said he "hadn't given any thought" to his contract situation as he focuses on his health, and he said after recent visits to several specialists: "We are seeing progress as far as a more specific type of diagnosis and I'm encouraged by that."

Rays, reliever Wheeler agree to three-year contract 04/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 12:45pm]
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