PORT CHARLOTTE — There may be moments of melancholy, Carl Crawford acknowledges, when he'll realize there's something he might be doing for the last time as a Ray. "It's kind of sad when you think of it like that," he said.
And there will be times, he admits, when his best efforts to not let his undetermined future and pending free agency become a distraction may fail.
"It will probably get to a point where it will irritate me a little bit," he said.
The reality, though, is that Monday most likely was the beginning of the end, the start of Crawford's 11th and last spring training as a member of the Rays organization.
He reported to camp saying the right things, that he was still hopeful of re-signing with the Rays, saying it "could go either way" and he was "hoping for the best, like always." (And, for you skeptics, he said that "the best" meant staying.)
But the numbers will be more significant than the words. And as Crawford, 28, makes $10 million to conclude a six-year, $33.5 million contract that kept him from his first two years of free agency and left him, by market value, underpaid, it's a safe assumption he is looking for more than the Rays, with plans to reduce their payroll, can offer. Even if principal owner Stuart Sternberg said last week that they're "going to do everything they can" to keep him around.
"I understand a lot of things are going against us," Crawford said, "but anything's possible."
Crawford said there hasn't been much in the way of negotiations yet, and "I don't know when we will," but he prefers they not carry into the season. That essentially puts a six-week clock on any talks, because if he gets to the end of the season, he's obviously more likely to explore free agency.
He wouldn't get into any specifics of what it would take to re-sign, or if he'd allow the Rays any kind of "hometown" discount (though he did say even though he has complained about the Tropicana Field turf, it wouldn't be a major issue).
But he indicated he's looking for market value, which based on some recent deals makes an average of $13 million to $16 million a season, or an estimate of $75 million over five years, seem reasonable.
"That's what you go there for, to free agency," Crawford said. "You go there to be paid like the guys playing against you. Pretty much, it speaks for itself."
He has known nothing but playing for the Rays during his 7½ major-league seasons, and he said he won't do anything different knowing it could be his last — not the effort with which he prepares, and definitely not the energy, and abandon, with which he plays.
"That's the one thing about me, I have to play the way I play," he said. "I don't know how to play at another level. It's pretty much going to be the same as me doing whatever; I'm not going to hold nothing back."
He is confident the contract issue won't be a distraction, with manager Joe Maddon concurring: "I think he's motivated to have a good year for himself and for us."
But try as he might, deep down Crawford knows this season won't be like any other, because it may be his last.
"That's kind of sad when you think of it like that, but I'll just keep in mind that's the way things are," he said. "The thing that keeps me going is knowing we have probably one of the best teams here this year. A lot of good things can happen, so I just keep looking at those things more than looking at the side like contract negotiations and stuff like that.
"I'm going to try to keep everything positive and know good things can come out of this year."
One way or another.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.