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Tampa Bay Rays nearing decision on whether to make push for this year or next

ST. PETERSBURG

Here's the easy part:

You wake up, you glance at the standings and you come away satisfied that, with the calendar at mid June, the Rays are very much contenders in the American League.

Here's the part that's not so easy:

Andrew Friedman wakes up, looks at those same standings and has to figure out, by the time the calendar reaches mid September, whether Tampa Bay can still be a contender.

You see, 65 games into the season, the Rays are in this netherworld of being nearly impressive. Practically wonderful. Almost splendid.

And for the general manager of a team with limited resources, that's a difficult circumstance to navigate, because you're never sure which direction you should head.

In New York and Boston, it's simple. You're near the top of the standings, so you spend June and July figuring out which players you will rent, via trade, for the pennant drive.

In Chicago and Houston, it's pretty easy, too. You're buried at the bottom of the standings, so you trade off veteran players to bring in prospects for future days.

Around here, the coming weeks will not be quite so simple. Yes, as a general rule, you take a shot at the postseason whenever it is in sight.

But, when you do not have money to burn, you must also be smart enough to recognize whether you are a realistic contender or a team just good enough to hang around.

That means honestly evaluating your own roster, and the potential of the rosters near you in the standings, then deciding whether to go for broke or plan for the future.

And that's what these coming weeks will mean for the Rays.

There is a chance they will decide they are one bat or one bullpen arm away from running down the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East and will take on some added salary.

And there is a chance they will decide the odds of reaching the 2011 postseason are longer than they appear and will trade a veteran or two with an eye toward 2012.

So which direction will they go?

The clues start arriving this week. Beginning Tuesday, the Rays will play the Red Sox and Yankees 14 times in 31 games. And when that streak is over, they will be about a week away from the nonwaiver trading deadline.

When the Rays won the East in 2008 and '10, they entered this point of the season in a little better shape. Both seasons, they were within a game of the division lead and several games ahead in the wild-card race.

In order for Tampa Bay to become buyers, I would assume it would need to make up some ground or at least remain stable in the standings in the next month. Maybe then they could look around for free-agents-to-be on struggling clubs.

And if the Rays fall any further behind Boston and New York, they will have to seriously consider turning some of their veterans into prospects.

For the guy in the upper deck, that may sound like heresy. How — when you are currently four games out of first and two games out of the wild card — do you even consider the possibility of giving up hope?

The answer is simple: You would not be giving up on hope, you would merely be shifting it to a more reasonable time frame.

For example, this is how Tampa Bay helped turned a mildly disappointing 2009 season into a division title in 2010. The Rays were 4½ games behind in the wild-card chase when they traded to Scott Kazmir to the Angels in August of '09.

That deal not only brought Sean Rodriguez to Tampa Bay, but the money saved from Kazmir's contract allowed the Rays to sign Rafael Soriano the next offseason. The deal was possible because the Rays had a surplus of starting pitching in the minors, which meant Kazmir was not only expensive but also expendable.

So what would be comparable in 2011?

The most logical names would be B.J. Upton, James Shields, Kyle Farnsworth and Johnny Damon. Shields, Farns­worth and Damon are probably long shots. Upton, in the right circumstances, is probably a prime trade candidate.

At $4.825 million, with another year of arbitration still to come, Upton has simply become too expensive for Tampa Bay.

In New York or elsewhere, his salary would probably be commensurate for a veteran centerfielder with above-average defense, speed and a little a bit of offensive pop. But the Rays could save more than $5 million next season by replacing Upton with Desmond Jennings, and the falloff would not be tremendous.

There is still plenty of time left in the season — nearly 100 games for the Rays — but the hour for making tough decisions is fast approaching.

In the next six weeks or so, the Rays will have to decide whether they want to place a bet on 2011, or start reshuffling the deck.

Tampa Bay Rays nearing decision on whether to make push for this year or next 06/12/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 12, 2011 9:02pm]
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