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Tampa Bay Rays begin final spring training before probable major changes

PORT CHARLOTTE

The first days of spring training have a special feel to them. Like returning to a familiar story but with a brand new ending still to be told. It is, in a lot of ways, similar to the first day of school after a long summer break.

Which is just how it felt standing outside the Rays clubhouse Thursday afternoon. The star pitcher is getting teased about a haircut that has gone rogue. The reliever looks as if he just rolled out of bed. The new guy has no idea the stranger in blue jeans he just passed is the team owner.

Yes, the old gang is getting together again. And, as it turns out, for one last ride.

Owner Stuart Sternberg has made it clear the Rays cannot continue operating with a payroll touching $70 million. Changes are coming by the end of the year, if not sooner. Which makes this season different from any other in Tampa Bay's short history. The Rays may still have an eye on the future, but they have wagered their checkbook on the next eight months.

Carl Crawford is the most productive player Tampa Bay has ever known. And 2010 could be the end of the line for him. Carlos Peña is the franchise's conscience in the clubhouse. And he, too, could be on his way out. Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Willy Aybar. The number of familiar faces from the World Series of 2008 has already dwindled, and it's about to grow smaller still.

If urgency is not being preached, it has certainly been implied.

"I think they know that. I don't know that I have to say that. I know they're going to read it, but it's just not something I would say," manager Joe Maddon said when asked if he would talk to the team about the possibility of a roster being revamped. "It's not an area that I would go to motivate. That gets away from process and fundamentals and the kind of work we do to be who we are."

None of this qualifies as shocking. Ownership has always maintained the payroll would be a moving target that could fluctuate depending on the particular season. In this case, the Rays say they overspent last year and are spending even more in 2010. That means the bill will finally come due in 2011.

With the contracts of Peña, Crawford, Pat Burrell, Rafael Soriano and several others coming to an end, the Rays will clear more than $40 million off the books for '11. On the other hand, raises could eat up roughly $20 million. Which, at this point, would probably put the payroll in the $45 million range in 2011.

That number is significant because it is close to where Tampa Bay's payroll was in 2008, when the Rays won the American League pennant. Which is one of the reasons executive vice president Andrew Friedman does not view this season as an all-in kind of bet.

The Rays may have put a lot of money into the 2010 season, but they did not gamble with any of their young talent. They did not trade any top prospects for a quick roster fix this season.

"Nothing we did deviated from the talent we have. It just may affect the resources we have," Friedman said.

"We've talked for a long time now about the importance of sustaining success. We have to be realistic about the division we play in. We don't have the luxury of spending up to, or well beyond, the luxury tax limit. But as evidenced by 2008, with a $43 million payroll, it still comes down to talent on the field. We feel we have a lot of talent this year, but we also feel we'll still have a lot of talent in '11 with a lot of guys coming, as well."

In other words, Friedman has a plan for the future. It just may not involve some of the players you've come to know. The pitching rotation will likely stay intact, and some of the younger players such as Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist will remain in the team's control.

But the future for the high-salaried players is less certain. They could be gone after October. Or, if the Rays get off to a slow start, they could be dealt for prospects at the trade deadline in July.

Does that increase the pressure on players? The question has no simple answer. Some players might feel a sense of urgency while others accept the circumstances as an occupational hazard.

"Honestly, this doesn't have a different feel to me," Maddon said. "I'm not stupid. I know what's going on with Carl, with Carlos, etc. I know what the potential is there. But I'm just focused on this group winning this year and fixing what we did wrong last year. I don't worry about the money stuff. I don't worry about what other people might do. I know on the surface what it might look like, but that's not my focus."

For now, they're just getting back together again for the start of something new.

To them, the end is still a long way off.

Tampa Bay Rays begin final spring training before probable major changes 02/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 1:09pm]

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