They did not merely trade one reliever for another. They did not just barter an open door for a closed one. They did not simply swap the pins and needles of their ninth innings for lasers and darts.
When you get down to it, what the Tampa Bay Rays traded was tomorrow for today.
Really, wasn't it about time?
It was a good thing, potentially a very good thing, when the Rays obtained Rafael Soriano from the Atlanta Braves on Thursday. Finally, the Rays seem to have a pitcher in charge of turning out the lights. Finally, they have someone with the ability to make an eighth-inning lead look like a victory. Finally, they seem to have the closer they have lacked for so long.
Even more impressive than the pitcher, however, was the message that came along with it.
As of right now, the Rays are a team about right now.
As of this moment, this season matters more than next season.
And when you get down to it, what's wrong with a little urgency?
In a single, bold move, everything has changed for the Rays. For most of their existence, the Rays have been tomorrow's darlings. They were patient, and they were purposeful, and like a preacher, they talked endlessly about a better day to come. When it came to the ripeness of their prospects, they were willing to wait.
Even back in 2008, when the Rays went to the World Series, the success seemed premature. Just you wait, the chatter was. Just wait until the stars grow up.
This trade, however, turns the Rays into a team of the present tense. This team suggests the Rays expect to contend … now.
And why not? When a team operates on a budget as tight as the Rays, the most important thing for it is to recognize opportunity. For the Rays, the window may be at its widest point this season. After 2010, the Rays could lose Carl Crawford. After 2010, they could lose Carlos Peña. So why not strike now, when both players still wear the Rays uniform.
How else can you explain a move as bold, as aggressive, and as completely out of character as this one?
Let's face it: The Rays didn't discover they needed a closer just last week. For some time now, the ninth inning around here has felt like a thrill ride without a seat belt. Mouths grow dry, and palms get sweaty, and something evil grabs hold of a fan's heart and squeezes. Opposing runners have run in circles until the bases catch on fire.
Accordingly, the most common question that vice president Andrew Friedman has heard over the past few years was what he had against closers. And each time, Friedman would wearily answer that, yes, he would love to have a closer, and yes, it would make life easier, and yes, it would make bullpen assignments clearer.
Then he would point out that a team with such a limited budget couldn't afford to pay big money for a player who was going to pitch 70 innings all season.
Evidently, that has changed. If the Rays didn't see Soriano as one of those nasty, shut-off-the-oxygen closers, they wouldn't be willing to pay him more than $7 million a year.
Three days ago, Friedman said, he thought the odds were against this kind of acquisition. But then things started to fall into place: If the Braves hadn't offered arbitration to Soriano, and if he hadn't shocked them by accepting, and if Atlanta hadn't signed Billy Wagner to a contract, and if owner Stuart Sternberg hadn't gone to the wallet, then none of this could have happened. The Rays weren't going to sign Soriano as a free agent for big money and forfeit a first-round draft choice.
If Soriano pitches the way he did last season, this could be a huge deal. When a team has an effective closer, one who can throw the ball past the hitter no matter which side of the plate he hits from, it changes the entire atmosphere of the ballpark. The ninth inning no longer feels like a free-for-all. Every opportunity feels safe.
Opportunity — we keep coming back to that word, don't we? For Friedman, for any of the franchises that have to count money, this is the most important part of the job. You have to be ready to strike when you have an opportunity. That's true if you're talking about closing, and it's true if you're talking about contending.
No, this doesn't mean the farm system is bankrupt, and no, it doesn't mean that prospects aren't still going to arrive. But give the Rays credit for noticing that their window is as wide as it will be for some time.
Ask yourself: When are the Rays going to have a better team, or a better opportunity, than the upcoming season? The Yankees still look imposing, but there seems to be a bit of wear around the Red Sox.
Maybe this season, the Rays will be better at the start. Maybe, too, they'll be better at closing time.
Maybe, 2010 will be the year you were waiting for all along.