ST. PETERSBURG — The message before the start of the season's second half was simple and concise.
And though it was directed to players by manager Joe Maddon during a brief team meeting in shallow rightfield during a workout, it could apply just as easily to the Rays front office as we move closer to the trade deadline.
Respect your position in the standings, Maddon said. And respect the opportunity in front of you.
Essentially, Maddon was saying special seasons are rare. And to allow one to slip away without a fight is a sin. Which is why I hope the Rays are willing to push the envelope on any trade that could significantly benefit them in the next three months.
Look, I'm not suggesting they should mortgage the future. And heaven forbid they adopt a whatever-it-costs mentality.
But for a low-revenue franchise that must protect its young players more than most, this is one of those exceptional opportunities when today deserves a little more consideration than tomorrow.
Because these guys are good enough to be the last team standing. When you're rolling toward August with a winning percentage above .600, you're allowed to wonder whether the World Series is within reach.
And, while the front office has set this team up to be in a position to contend for years to come, you still cannot take this season for granted. Just ask the 20 or so players who were here last season and kept wondering how they could be so far out of the race.
Injuries happen. Slumps happen. Prospects fail to develop. And the Rays will never be able to buy themselves out of an unexpected jam like the Yankees or Red Sox. Which means their margin for error is smaller, and their opportunities to succeed, theoretically, are more precious.
So what is a reasonable trade for Tampa Bay? How far should the Rays be willing to go?
Would you trade six years of Jeremy Hellickson for three months of Jayson Werth? Not if you were sober. So how about a couple of other prospects for Washington's Josh Willingham in 2010 and '11? Now that's a trade worth considering. Or how about a throwaway minor-leaguer for Florida's Wes Helms?
The point is there is a sliding scale for any potential deal. And unless you're having breakfast with Andrew Friedman today, it is impossible to know precisely what the Rays are being offered.
Typically, in these situations, the Rays place greater emphasis on the long term. And that is the correct philosophy for this franchise. Just so long as they realize philosophies have to be flexible.
They can't completely ignore the future, but they should be willing to take a bigger gamble when the payoff can be as large as a World Series trophy. And as well as the Rays have been playing, they could still use some help.
The starting pitching has been spotty lately, but James Shields and Matt Garza have enough history to reasonably expect they will straighten out. The bullpen has not been as sharp as it was in the first half, but Hellickson could be the potential answer.
What the Rays need is a bat. Preferably a right-handed bat.
Tampa Bay has been ridiculously successful against left-handed starting pitching (22-11), but the lineup still looks weak against southpaws. Neither Willy Aybar nor Gabe Kapler has hit left-handers as well as expected. And the thought of facing a rotation such as the Yankees with left-handers CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte in a playoff series is not terribly appealing.
Werth has a nice right-handed bat but has been in a summerlong slump. He's also a big swing-and-miss hitter, and the Rays have too many of those. That could make Willingham more attractive. Or Florida's Cody Ross.
Willingham has an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .997 against left-handers this season. Ross has an .865. And, since both are still a year away from free agency, they could be cheaper alternatives to Carl Crawford in leftfield in 2011.
So are they worth chasing?
As long as the price is not ridiculous. The Rays do not want to jeopardize their long-term success, but they should be willing to take a greater risk than they would normally prefer.
Let's face it: A year from now, the Rays may not be in a position to have this conversation. Owner Stuart Sternberg has made it clear the payroll is going to be slashed. There is virtually no chance Crawford is returning. Rafael Soriano is probably gone, too. Carlos Peña, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour are also free agents.
A few years ago, when the Rays were trading off veterans such as Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson and Julio Lugo for prospects, it was because the team knew it was not going to contend and saw no benefit in winning 75 games instead of 65.
That was absolutely the correct thing to do. A few games in the standings meant nothing then.
But, today, a game or two could mean everything.
And the Rays need to respect that.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.