ST. PETERSBURG — The eight-player trade the Rays completed Saturday that sent starter Matt Garza to the Cubs was obviously about the future.
Certainly there are long-term benefits as they added four premium prospects to an already robust farm system. But Rays officials maintain it allows them to remain competitive in the short term, with plans to reallocate Garza's salary to address other needs and an insistence they haven't given up on the 2011 season.
"We definitely do not feel that way," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It's always going to be an uphill battle in the AL East. We still have some spots to fill to round out our roster, but we have a very talented core in place and a core that we think that with the added experience of winning another AL East title last year and what we're going to shoot to do to supplement around them, that we'll be in good position to defend our AL East crown."
Specifically, they will be looking to add one or two proven relievers as they continue rebuilding a bullpen stripped almost bare by free agency (though don't expect still-unsigned Rafael Soriano to return), and one or two hitters to add to a lineup that lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña and Jason Bartlett. And with only about $32 million in payroll committed, they should have room — even with their significant payroll reduction — to make some additions.
"There's a lot of players out there both on the free agent market and on the trade market, and it's something we're going to shift our focus to in trying to do that," Friedman said.
Team president Matt Silverman acknowledged that finances are a factor in every decision they make but insisted that saving Garza's projected $6 million salary "didn't drive" the deal. Instead, he said, it was a matter of sacrificing the luxury of depth among starting pitchers (with Jeremy Hellickson likely, but not automatic, to replace Garza) to bolster their overall roster in the present and future.
"Major-league payroll is always going to fluctuate, but the key is maintaining a talent level that allows us to compete with teams that can go out and spend more than $100 million on a single player," Silverman said. "So we need to be able to compete this year, and we need to be able to look out for the next several years and know that we're going to have the talent to compete in this division."
The key to their success is always going to be tied to their farm system, and they feel better about that after adding pitcher Chris Archer, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, catcher Robinson Chirinos and outfielder Brandon Guyer, along with major-league outfielder Sam Fuld, in exchange for Garza, outfielder Fernando Perez and minor-league lefty Zach Rosscup.
"It's essential for us as we try to maintain success in an increasingly hostile economic climate within baseball," Friedman said.
As highly regarded as their system is — ranked third by Baseball America before the trade, second now — the trade provides some needed balance as they were much deeper in pitching prospects than position players.
Fuld, who is out of options, might make the opening day roster as a reserve, but Chirinos is likely to be the first of the prospects to have an impact, probably sometime this season (especially if they can trade Kelly Shoppach). The keys are Archer, who Friedman said "has all the makings to be a good starting pitcher in the American League East," and Lee, an advanced 20-year-old prospect known for exceptional speed and defense.
Garza said the trade caught him a bit off guard, but he thanked the Rays for the opportunity and the good times of two AL East titles in his three seasons. As for the breakup of that team, he said: "It's a shame it's got to be like that, but it's the nature of the beast, it's the way this game works."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.