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Tampa Bay Rays secure a brighter future at cost of present

The Rays just got better in 2010. And 2011, for that matter.

And all it may have cost them was a chance for the playoffs in 2009.

That's pretty much what this Scott Kazmir trade means. By getting out from under Kazmir's overpriced contract, the Rays will have a better chance to keep the core of their team together in the next couple of seasons, and that, absolutely, is a good thing.

But there's no way to spin this trade to make you believe the Rays have a better shot at defending their American League pennant today. Not by taking their No. 3 starter out of the rotation. And not by sending him to the team the Rays would most likely face in the first round of the playoffs if they somehow beat the odds and win the AL wild card.

For now, this trade stinks. There's no other way to paint it. You could say the Rays have Andy Sonnanstine and Wade Davis in Triple A, and so the rotation is not without options. But if those guys were better than Kazmir, they would have already been with the team.

Whatever carpe diem means, this is the opposite. Teams within 41/2 games of a postseason spot are supposed to add instead of subtract. The Red Sox brought in Victor Martinez, Casey Kotchman, Alex Gonzalez and Billy Wagner. The Tigers brought in Aubrey Huff and Jarrod Washburn. The Yankees brought in Eric Hinske, and the Angels got Kazmir, 25.

The Rays? They traded away a two-time All-Star who may be just starting to turn his season around.

This decision goes against every bit of passion in a competitor's soul. When you have a chance to win, you do whatever possible to take advantage. By completing this deal, the Rays have sent the opposite message.

So, no, you do not have to agree with this trade. You don't have to like it one darned bit.

But you should at least try to understand it.

These are the choices that have to be made in a small-revenue market. And that's the truth Bud Selig ignores when he brags about competitive balance. The Yankees would never make this trade because they don't have to. Neither do the Red Sox.

But if the Rays go for broke, they run the risk of not being a contender in 2010 and beyond. Because the reality is the Rays were heading to a payroll in the $70 million range next season. Ownership said the team is already pushing its luck around $65 million, so it would have likely meant letting players go.

"Given baseball's current economic structure, we have to be bold in the moves we make. We have to take risks to constantly improve our team," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It's my job to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future, but I don't want this interpreted as only being about the future. We do have depth with our starting pitching, and so we don't see this in any way as giving up on '09."

This trade does not guarantee the Rays keep Carl Crawford at $10 million or Carlos Peña at $10.125 million next season instead of trading them, but those are better possibilities today than they were Friday.

Oh, you could argue Tampa Bay would have been better off trading Kazmir in December when it wouldn't affect the current season, but there are no guarantees anyone would have wanted him at that point. Do not forget, he passed through waivers this month with 29 teams failing to put in a claim. With salaries of $8 million (2010), $12 million (2011) and a $13.5 million option in 2013 (with a $2.5 million guaranteed buyout), Kazmir is horribly overpaid considering his current numbers.

So, yes, the Rays would have preferred dealing him in the offseason. But they could not take the chance of being stuck with his contract if he regressed again. After all, it has been a while since Kazmir has been an elite pitcher. Depending on how you grade, probably more than a year.

He was much better in his past two starts (which is why the Angels finally decided to pull the trigger), but do you put more faith in the past 13 days or the past 13 months?

Beginning in July 2008, Kazmir has gone 13-12 with a 5.27 ERA in 36 regular-season starts. He has not had an ERA below 4.02 for any of the past seven months in which he has made more than one start. That's a long time to go without pitching like the ace you are being paid to be.

Given Kazmir's recent history, there's a chance there will be no dropoff from him to Davis or Sonnanstine. But, if the Rays finish a game or two out of the postseason, you will forever wonder whether Kazmir would have made a difference.

In the end, it seems clear the Rays made a mistake. But it wasn't trading Kazmir on Friday. It was giving him a huge contract extension in 2008. It was the first decision that led to the second decision.

And it led to the Rays potentially trading today for tomorrow.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

Tampa Bay Rays secure a brighter future at cost of present 08/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 6:36am]
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