ORLANDO — There was going to come a time, as much as Rays fans wanted to hope otherwise, that Carl Crawford was going to leave. If the Sternberg regime hadn't slipped in months before taking control in late 2005 and orchestrated his contract extension, it would have happened two years ago, if not sooner via trade.
But for Crawford, the timing couldn't be better. As the Rays recoil and cut salary, Crawford is headed for a huge payday, positioned as arguably the most attractive position player on a free agent market that appears — based on the early signings — to be flush with cash.
"Timely," Giants general manager Brian Sabean said. "It's timely, but it's deserved. He'd probably transit any market or any place in time. He won't hurt for offers or opportunities."
How much Crawford gets — his only on-the-record adjective, to ESPN.com, has been "eye-popping" — will be a product of how many teams are interested enough and drive up the price. But the guesstimates have been staggering — $100 million-plus over six or more years, with MLB Network's Peter Gammons coming in high at $130 million over seven. If that's close, Crawford — who made $10 million in 2010 — would be, with an average value around $18 million, at or near the top of all major-league outfielders and in the top 20 players overall.
The Angels are the team most linked to Crawford — especially with star Torii Hunter recently coming out to the Los Angeles Times like this: "We need Carl Crawford, put it like that." The Red Sox and Tigers are next, with the Rangers and Giants also mentioned, the Yankees continuing to loom if they don't sign Cliff Lee and others likely involved (Phillies? White Sox?) on a lower profile.
Crawford, obviously, offers a lot between his bat, glove and legs — even if Scott Boras, the agent for Jayson Werth, the other top free agent outfielder, likes to refer to him as "more of a leadoff type" — and in the past month added Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards to his resume, while still being on the right side of 30.
"He's one of the elite players in the game," Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. "Teams are always looking for differencemakers, players who can make a difference on offense and defense."
While teams have been willing to pay for offense, it's just recently that they've shown their love for the glove in the market. And that's what makes Crawford's timing even better.
"The increased emphasis on defense, really in the past 12-18 months, is extremely well-timed for Carl," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He's as impactful a defender as there is in baseball. And he adds a lot of value in a lot of different ways that now teams are focusing on more than they did in years past, which is all going to benefit him greatly however it plays out."
Thus far, there hasn't been much public chatter about Crawford, which could mean either a) he's still "sitting back waiting" as he said on the Nov. 9 Gold Glove conference call, or b) negotiations are proceeding with a team that does things quietly, such as the Angels.
As it plays out, the Rays have considerable interest — albeit no control — over where he ends up.
From the standpoint of compensation, it's clearly better for the Rays if he doesn't go to the Angels.
A team that loses a top free agent such as Crawford gets two high drafts picks — one from the signing team and a compensation pick between the first two rounds. But because the Angels were in the bottom 15 record-wise in 2010, their first-round pick is "protected," and the Rays instead would get their second-round pick. (And if, as rumored, the Angels also sign closer Rafael Soriano, one of the six free agents rated higher than Crawford, the Rays would get the second-round pick for Soriano and only a third-round pick for Crawford.)
From the standpoint of competition, it's probably better for the Rays if Crawford doesn't go to the Red Sox or the Yankees.
There will be debates on whether Crawford or the Rays would have the advantage, and who'd have more motivation and/or pressure, but the bottom line is this: The Rays know how good he is, and facing him 18 times a year probably isn't going to turn out well.
But there is the theory that Crawford won't be comfortable playing in Boston or New York — given the scrutiny and tense atmosphere compared to the relaxed setting he's used to, plus nine years of viewing the Sox and Yanks as the evil enemy — and it could actually be beneficial for the Rays for him to be there unhappily while consuming a large chunk of their payroll.
Wherever, whenever, it still won't be easy for the Rays to see him on TV pulling on another team's jersey.
"It'll be tough," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "I remember when we had the (2008 AL championship) ring ceremony, and he was the last guy that came out. It was great to see all the rest of them and give them the rings, but he was the one that really stood out.
"He was a special guy before we got here, and I'm very happy that we were able — together, he and us — to do what we've done, and basically set him up for this opportunity for himself."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.