One measure of the Rays' overall development is their confidence about having a legitimate opportunity to return to the World Series this season. "We've got everything," said All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford. "We've definitely got all the pieces we need. We seem to be strong everywhere. So there's definitely a good chance for us this year." Another is the concern that they'd better do it this year, because they won't be able to keep this team together. "I think that's kind of the message people are getting," shortstop Jason Bartlett said, "that if it doesn't happen this year, a lot of guys might be gone."
There are good reasons for the sense of urgency.
Consider who may be leaving, starting with Crawford and first baseman Carlos Peña. And how they handled the offseason, topped by the acquisition of closer Rafael Soriano. How much payroll they may be shedding, given already announced plans by principal owner Stuart Sternberg. And even how they view their competition, perhaps sensing some vulnerability in the Yankees and Red Sox. Even if team officials don't quite want to acknowledge it that way. "2010 is important," team president Matt Silverman said, "in that we feel we have an opportunity for a special year."
Here are some reasons why:
Who may be leaving
The primary reason there's so much focus on what the Rays do this season is because of who may not be on the Rays next season.
Crawford and Peña, two of their best and most popular players, are in the last years of their contracts and, with salaries already in eight digits, it seems highly unlikely the Rays can afford to re-sign them.
Soriano and Pat Burrell are also in their last years. Reliever Dan Wheeler has a $4 million option for 2011. Bartlett and B.J. Upton are getting expensive enough, and close enough to free agency, that they may be trade candidates.
"There's definitely a chance that this is the last season we have all these players, but there's also a chance not so we don't spend much time thinking about that right now," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Our focus is on putting ourselves in a position to have success and we feel like we have a roster that's capable of doing a lot of special things."
Both Crawford and Peña say they would like to stay and don't know what's going to happen.
But if this is the end, they hope to finish with a flourish. "Ideally, that's what you'd like to do," Crawford said. "Go out on top."
What they did
Rays officials made their investment in this season clear months ago.
You could tell by what they did over the winter, primarily in acquiring Soriano to fill their biggest need for a closer despite a $7.25 million salary that pushed their payroll to a franchise-high, and anxiety-heightening, $73 million. Plus, they added another potential front-line catcher in acquiring Kelly Shoppach.
But also by what they didn't do.
Had they not felt as strongly about their chances to win now, they could have been proactive in trading Crawford or Peña (though he was recovering from two broken fingers), knowing they could get a hefty multi-player return, rather than risk them being injured or getting only draft picks if they leave as free agents after this season.
"If we weren't where we were in the success cycle, we most definitely would have operated differently this offseason," Friedman said.
What they have
As a result, they'll field what's considered — by far, by some — the most talented team in organization history. The players say that with the addition of Soriano they have all the pieces they need.
"There's really no weakness," Bartlett said.
"I've got no concerns about anything," Upton said.
The Rays have a dynamic lineup, an outstanding defense, a young rotation with huge potential and, despite setup man J.P. Howell being sidelined a month or two, an improved bullpen with Soriano at the back end.
"There's no doubt we have unbelievable talent on this team; it's crazy," opening day starter James Shields said. "I think we have a good chance this year. And I know we all want it."
What they're spending
It's not unusual for owners to get to spring training and get a little ahead of themselves talking about the upcoming season.
But principal owner Stuart Sternberg made the unusual move of announcing before the opening of this spring's camp that there will be a significant reduction in payroll for next season.
From a business standpoint, it's understandable given a smaller-than-hoped-for increase in attendance last season and sluggish sales so far this year: They've overspent for two years and they have to even things out. From what Sternberg said, they'll be down to the $50 million range, or lower.
But from a baseball standpoint, it's a different message.
Some players, Bartlett said, took it as a form of motivation, that if they win the Series "they'll think about keeping some people." Others, such as Shields and Evan Longoria, said they were among those unconcerned, more focused on the present.
"When you start worrying about the other things, that's when you start to falter," Longoria said. "Where guys are going to go, what might happen, that's stuff we can't really worry about."
Plus, Shields said, "We went to the World Series (in 2008) with a $40 million team, so to me it doesn't matter about payroll."
It's not as if they'd revert to their Devil Rays days if they let all four big-money free agents and Wheeler go, dropping more than $40 million. Not with Longoria, Upton, Bartlett, Ben Zobrist, both catchers and all five starting pitchers still under control. Plus, in their concerted effort to always be working ahead, they have more prospects coming from what Friedman proudly calls a "burgeoning" farm system.
But it just wouldn't be the same.
Whom they're facing
Everywhere you look, the Yankees and Red Sox are being picked to finish first and second in the AL East. The Rays, of course, think it will look differently at the end.
And while both opponents look solid top to bottom, there are at least some reasons for concern, if not actual vulnerability.
The Yankees could be complacent. They could show their age (particularly Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte). They could still be short in starting pitchers, especially if Javier Vazquez fails. They may find Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson poor replacements for Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui.
The Red Sox made a lot of changes, putting a premium on defense perhaps at the expense of offense.
They need David Ortiz to turn his power back on. Adjusting to the Boston spotlight could be troublesome for new additions John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre. Health and durability are issues with starters Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield.
"Of course they're the favorites because of their history and because they both have really good teams," Crawford said. "But to say there's a clear-cut favorite, I don't think that's true. Any team can be beat at any time."
For a lot of reasons, the Rays hope that time is now.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]