LAKE BUENA VISTA — For a day they knew was coming and an outcome they surely pondered, the Rays still took the news a bit like a high-and-tight fastball that Carl Crawford was not only leaving but going to the rival Red Sox.
"It will be tough to see him in that uniform," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Especially the first time."
While the Rays were happy for their former star landing a staggering deal — $142 million over seven years, with an official announcement expected in Boston as soon as this afternoon — there was some surprise and a dose of disappointment that he ended up with the enemy, putting the All-Star leftfielder in the opposing lineup 18 times a season.
"I'm used to being with him trying to beat those guys, and now he's one of them," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "So it's going to be a little different."
"It's definitely going to feel weird," starter James Shields said. "It's sad to see him in the AL East; I wish he went to the National League so we wouldn't have to face him as much."
There was also some frustration with the latest example of an economic structure that enables large-market teams such as the Red Sox and the Yankees, who are expected to sign ace pitcher Cliff Lee soon, to routinely use their financial resources to accrue the top players and force small-market teams such as the Rays to scramble.
"It's the way the structure in this sport is set up — we get it, we recognize it, we operate within it," Friedman said. "We relish in the fact that we have to swim against the tide — it's just that the current's getting stronger.
"Carl's been the face of this franchise for a number of years. He's an extremely talented player, and what you see is what you get — he's driven to be great and impacts the game in every facet. It's certainly a big loss for us. We knew it was coming, but obviously when it happens, there's a feeling of disappointment."
"It gets tougher," manager Joe Maddon said. "It gets tougher. It's going to make it difficult to defend (the Rays' division title). I know that."
The Rays obviously knew Crawford, 29, was leaving as a free agent after nine seasons and that after years of playing below market value he was looking to cash in.
He did so in staggering fashion, the $142 million deal the sixth-largest contract given to a free agent, and the $20.3 million annual value the second largest for an outfielder, behind Manny Ramirez. (Crawford is also the first position player to sign for $100 million without a 20 home run season.)
"He's one of those players who deserves every single bit of what he got," Shields said.
Former Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said Crawford, whom he convinced to pass on a Nebraska football scholarship after making him a 1999 second-round draft pick (after 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton in an impressive haul), deserves the contract — and the credit for working so hard to reach the elite level.
Also, LaMar said: "He chose the right profession."
There will be debate over whether the Sox can actually get their $142 million's worth, especially with the cozy leftfield at Fenway Park diminishing the value of Crawford's speed. But there is little question that Crawford will be a dynamic force in a robust Red Sox lineup.
"I think now you're going to see the Rickey Henderson-type numbers," free agent Gary Sheffield said.
What did surprise several Rays, from Maddon on down, was that Crawford didn't sign with the Angels — who were considered the favorites and seemed the overall best fit but reportedly offered only $108 million — and ended up in Boston.
"I don't think any of us expected that," Upton said. "He made the best decision for his career, and if it's in Boston, that's where it had to be. … Sometimes things don't turn out the way we thought."
Crawford isn't the only player leaving the Rays. First baseman Carlos Peña signed with the Cubs and reliever Joaquin Benoit the Tigers, closer Rafael Soriano and five other relievers are free agents, shortstop Jason Bartlett is likely headed to San Diego in a trade, and starter Matt Garza is the subject of extensive trade rumors.
But Crawford clearly is the one that hurts the most because of his destination.
"It was easier," Maddon said, "to congratulate Carlos on going to the Cubs."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org