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Rays will be thrifty shoppers

This week's winter meetings at Disney likely won't be a big deal for the Devil Rays unless they make a big deal.

With their minds open, but their checkbook not, the Rays don't plan to dabble much in the ridiculously pricey free-agent market. They will explore a few interesting situations, such as ace Mark Mulder coming off surgery and homer king Barry Bonds if the price starts coming down, but their shopping is likely to be limited to a moderately priced veteran or two - first baseman Darin Erstad, or a reliever such as David Riske or Russ Springer. Plus they are likely to finalize a contract with Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura, who toured the Trop Saturday.

But any major acquisition, and any significant strides toward improvement, is going to take a big deal.

"There may be a piece out there," senior VP Gerry Hunsicker said, "but to make a significant difference for our franchise, not just this year but for years to come, there's a much greater chance of doing it via trade."

The Rays will have some options, with Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford - and their modest long-term contracts - looking more valuable every day. But they would want - and need - to get so much back that it would be a franchise-rattling deal.

"The real challenge to making a major trade is that you're talking about giving up a pretty significant player, you better be getting some things back you feel pretty strongly about or you start taking a couple steps backward," Hunsicker said.

Even for a pair of much desired young frontline starters, they'd have to think hard given the fragility and attrition rate among pitchers.

More likely, they will trade a lesser part - perhaps Jorge Cantu, who is working hard to rebound from a disappointing '06 season but may be without a position if Iwamura moves to second. And they could be talked into talking about B.J. Upton.

Executive vice president Andrew Friedman said they will be aggressive and - one of his buzzwords - opportunistic, but remain focused on the long term, seeking young players they can keep for several years.

"If there's a move that makes us better ... we will not be afraid to make that move," Friedman said.

DID YOU KNOW: Among the fascinating stats in the new Baseball Info Solutions/Bill James Handbook: Crawford scored from second on a single 16 of 18 times; Casey Fossum threw 604 pitches less than 80 mph; Joe Maddon used a major-league high 145 different lineups; Delmon Young is projected to hit .301 with 18 homers, 89 RBIs and 33 steals and Scott Kazmir to go 10-8 with a 3.68 ERA while making only 27 starts.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: There have been preliminary talks on a long-term deal with Kazmir who, despite pitching only three games after July 23 because of shoulder problems, is now "perfectly fine," Friedman said. ... Assuming all details are worked out, the Rays' plan to move the May 15-17 series with Texas to Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex will have the blessing of MLB officials, who like the idea to "involve" the Orlando-area market. ... Edwin Jackson may be pitching back into the rotation mix by going 3-1, 1.17 in six starts for Magallanes in Venezuela. ... Baldelli's No. 22 was retired by Bishop Hendricken High in Warwick, R.I. ... Catcher Kevin Cash, acquired in December 2004 for reliever Chad Gaudin, was released off the Triple-A roster. ... Charlie Montoyo deserved the promotion to manage in Triple A. ... Josh Hamilton is eligible for Thursday's Rule 5 draft but unlikely to be taken since he's on the Triple-A roster and would have to be kept in the majors. ... The extra draft pick was tempting, but the Rays couldn't risk offering arbitration to Brian Meadows in case he accepted it. ... Wilson Alvarez, the $35-million free-agent flop, will be a Pirates minor-league pitching coach though, presumably, not in charge of fortitude or fitness.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.

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