As of now, the Rays are still contenders in the American League East.
Even without Carl Crawford. Even without Rafael Soriano. Even without Carlos Peña and Joaquin Benoit. There are scenarios out there where the Rays can find enough cheap relievers and one or two bats to remain capable of 90-plus victories.
Which is precisely how they will proceed going into next week's winter meetings in Orlando. They will look for the perfect deal. They will try to find the perfect player on the margins. They will operate as if a pennant is still within reach.
And if that doesn't work, they should be willing to go in a completely different direction.
If it looks like their best deal is to strip down and go longer-term, the Rays should not hesitate to put themselves in position to contend in 2012 or '13. Even if it means taking a couple of steps backward in 2011 to do it.
For what the Rays should not do is waste either time or money. And history says they are too smart for that. Because, for a team of limited resources, it makes absolutely no sense to play to the middle.
In other words, why spend valuable resources on a season destined for mediocrity?
Sure, the temptation is to spend whatever money is in your pocket to win as many games as possible in whichever season is next on the calender. But what if that actually slows your progress? What if the quickest route to your next postseason game is to sacrifice players and payroll in 2011 to make a higher percentage run at the pennant in the future?
This is the fork in the road that executive vice president Andrew Friedman will be staring at in the coming weeks. He has to steer in the direction of 2011 while being prepared to make a hard turn toward 2012 if it looks like it might be a shortcut.
So what does all of this mean in real terms?
The Rays have 15 or 16 players, barring trades, who are pretty much locks for the roster. Depending on arbitration cases, those players will make roughly $35 million. If you believe the payroll will be no higher than $50 million — which is probably the high end — then Friedman has $15 million to spend on 10 players. If you assume Jason Bartlett will be traded, that's a savings of about $5 million.
Still, that's not a lot of money to rebuild a bullpen and find a first baseman, a leftfielder, a designated hitter and a couple of role players. Some holes can be filled with young players — a Jake McGee in the bullpen, a Desmond Jennings in the outfield —and some can be filled with holdovers — a Dan Johnson or a Willy Aybar —but the Rays will still have to go outside the organization at some point.
And this is where the market will help determine Tampa Bay's direction.
If the right trade partners can be found — or the right free agents fall in their lap — the Rays can take a shot at contending next season. They wouldn't necessarily be the favorites in the AL East, but if they are good enough to win 90 or so games, they can go for broke and hope the breaks fall their way.
Obviously, that scenario would be their preference.
But if a different kind of trade partner comes along — a team willing to give up multiple high-end prospects for Matt Garza or James Shields or B.J. Upton — the Rays will have to seriously consider whether it's a better long-term solution for the franchise.
The key is that you don't want to waste money.
If the Rays determine the right players aren't available, and they have very little chance of contending in 2011, it's silly to spend $50 million in payroll. It would make more sense to pare the budget to the $35 million to $40 million range, stock up on prospects then have extra money in the piggy bank to spend in 2012.
One other possibility is to hedge their bets. The Rays could take a shot at some low-risk investments and then decide at the trade deadline in July whether to dangle Upton or Shields or Garza as trade bait.
The Rays have already done this once before. Five years ago, they dealt Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson, Danys Baez and Julio Lugo in a fairly short span of time. It seemed ugly at the time but, as it turned out, the difference on the field was fairly minimal. The Rays won fewer games but that hardly matters when you're already heading toward last place.
The key is the Rays used some of the prospects acquired in those trades to build a pennant-winning team in 2008. And they used the money saved from those payrolls to help keep the team together in 2009-10.
In the end, the goal is pretty simple:
To be playing meaningful games in September.
The only question is whether it makes more sense to aim for September of 2011 or 2012.