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Salary boom win-win for Rays

The Devil Rays aren't planning to spend much money in the free-agent market, but the ridiculous dollars teams have thrown at players could have a significant impact on their plans.

With free agents getting multiyear deals for multimillions more than expected, 25-year-old outfielders Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford, whom the Rays have signed to long-term deals at relatively bargain terms, are becoming increasingly attractive to teams as alternatives via trades.

And even more attractive for the Rays to keep.

"An odd dynamic of the market," Rays president Matt Silverman said, "is that as free-agent salaries escalate, our players under control become both more valuable to us and to other teams in the industry trying to fill their needs."

When Crawford signed a six-year contract before the 2005 season and Baldelli signed his after, they looked like decent deals for both sides. The players got the security of millions of dollars guaranteed, and the team got cost certainty and control of the players into their first years of free-agent eligibility.

Given the way the market has exploded, they look like considerably better deals for the Rays. And that's as much for the financial terms - Crawford can make $27.5-million over the next four seasons if the Rays pick up two options, Baldelli $26-million over the next five - as the length of the deals.

"With the contracts that have been consummated this winter, our ability to lock up young players like Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli becomes even more important," senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker said. "Not only are they extremely talented, but they are young players that are under control for a number of years. That makes them somewhat unique because there are not many players in that category."

With veterans Alfonso Soriano getting $136-million over eight seasons from the Cubs, Carlos Lee $100-million over six from the Astros, Gary Matthews $50-million over five from the Angels and Juan Pierre $44-million over five from the Dodgers, and with J.D. Drew expected to get $50-million over five from the Red Sox as soon as today, Rays officials certainly could chuckle at what Baldelli and Crawford would command as free agents on the open market.

And with the number of outfielders dwindling in what wasn't considered much of a free-agent class to begin with, the Rays may spend much of this week's winter meetings at Disney World weighing tempting trade offers.

Neither is going to be easy to get. Crawford, as the Rays' most established and accomplished player, will be tougher to pry loose than Baldelli, who has had injury issues but came back impressively last season.

An interested team likely would have to give up at least two young, frontline major-league-ready players who are three or more years from free agency. It would have to have the type of potential impact players the Rays are seeking, especially frontline starting pitchers. And it would have to share the Rays' view that there is compensatory value not only in Baldelli and Crawford's talent, but in their contracts -Crawford tops out at a $10-million salary in 2010, Baldelli at $9-million in 2011.

But just as Baldelli and Crawford have become more valuable to the Rays, other teams are putting a premium in their young players. As a result, some would prefer to spend money - even too much money, as the Dodgers may have with Pierre and the Angels with Matthews - than give up youngsters. For the Rays, given limited resources, it would be an even tougher decision.

"I'm sure that all of our young players are more valuable now then when the winter started," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "and they also are more valuable to us."

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

FAST FACTS

Whom would you rather have?

Two Rays outfielders look like bargains next to two recent signees (stats are 162-game averages):

CF Juan Pierre, 29 Dodgers 7 ML seasons

$44-million over five years

303 2 HRs 46 RBIs 200 H 52 SB .350 OBP .727 OPS

CF Rocco Baldelli, 25 Rays 3 ML seasons

$26-million over five years

289 18 HRs 88 RBIs 185 H 23 SB .329 OBP .780 OPS

OF Alfonso Soriano, 30 Cubs 7+ ML seasons

$136-million over eight years

280 35 HRs 94 RBIs 184 H 35 SBs .325 OBP .835 OPS

LF Carl Crawford, 25 (right) Rays 5 ML seasons

$27.5-million over five years

292 12 HRs 71 RBIs 194 H 55 SBs .326 OBP .760 OPS

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