ST. PETERSBURG — It took three months, 50 victories and a couple of Jonny Gomes' beatdowns for the world to come around to the idea of the Rays as contenders. And now get ready for another shocker.
This trading deadline, the Rays will be buyers.
The franchise that once dumped Fred McGriff at the deadline is now talking about trading for C.C. Sabathia. The organization that once unloaded Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson, Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo in one summer is now considering a deal for Brian Fuentes. The team forever on a budget is not worrying about the bottom line.
The trading deadline is 29 days away, and the Rays are down to this one consideration:
Will a deal make them better this season without significantly jeopardizing their future?
At this moment, it is a riddle with no answer. For it is still too soon to gauge the cost of prying Sabathia away from Cleveland, and Fuentes from Colorado. There are too many movable pieces and too many variables to ponder.
But, for now, it is enough to know the Rays are willing to consider the possibility.
Because as sweet as the air smells this morning — and we have never known the aroma of first place in July — you must realize just how fragile this whole thing can be.
Consider that on this very day a year ago, the division leaders in the National League were New York, Milwaukee and San Diego. The wild-card leader was Los Angeles. None of those teams made the playoffs.
That's not saying the Rays are heading for a collapse. That's not suggesting this team isn't built to go the distance. It is merely pointing out how quickly fortunes can change, and how precious this opportunity is.
Theoretically, the Rays should be stronger next season. But can you count on the Yankees being a mediocre team again? Can you be sure Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza will all be heading to 150-plus innings again? Can you assume the Rays will again have a .682 winning percentage in games decided by two runs or less?
In other words, there is something special going on in Tampa Bay this summer and it would be a horrible mistake to treat it as if it is the first of many more to come.
So, having said all of that, how should the Rays proceed in the next four weeks?
The recent history of deadline acquisitions has not been all that encouraging. The Braves gave up a bundle for Mark Teixeira and Octavio Dotel last summer and did not make the playoffs. The Red Sox brought in Eric Gagne and won the World Series in spite of him. In 2006, the Rangers acquired Carlos Lee, who could not bring them a division title but cost them future All-Star closer Francisco Cordero in the process.
The Rays understand all of this. They realize the potential cost of a pennant race move. Which is why I assume they will only sniff around Sabathia, while going hard after Fuentes.
The price for Sabathia is going to be steep. It will probably take two premium prospects for a pitcher who is going to be here for three months then leave forever because his contract demands will be out of Tampa Bay's range.
Tampa Bay may be willing to give up one top prospect and some other pieces, but there is no way they will surrender two of their best prospects.
That's why Fuentes might make more sense. He will still command a top minor-leaguer, but the Rays might be able to bring him to town without completely disrupting their farm system.
And Fuentes might be a better fit on this roster.
Tampa Bay's bullpen has been the best in the league for most of the season, but it's hard to expect the same type of performance if Troy Percival's hamstring continues being a problem. Not only does it rob the Rays of their closer, it weakens their depth and means everyone else will be asked to fill a new role.
Maybe the combination of Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler can be effective enough in the late innings, as they have the past two nights at Tropicana Field. But that might be a risky bet to make with so much at stake.
The starting rotation has been strong, but the Rays have too many six-inning pitchers. The bullpen has been asked to handle a huge role, and an extra arm could be imperative come August and September.
It's not like Fuentes is an automatic choice. His ratio of saves since 2006 is closer to unacceptable (63-of-80) than outstanding. But he will likely be the best closer on the market, and the Rays are proceeding with that in mind.
Now, perhaps, this talk is premature. The Rays have guaranteed the Red Sox will leave town as the second-place team in the AL East, and Tampa Bay's pitchers have shut down one of the best lineups in baseball on consecutive nights. So maybe the Rays will decide additional pieces are not worth the price in trade.
But it's good to know ownership is buying into this pennant fever business.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]