Rays might have to get bold with Crawford

If you were captivated by the Roy Halladay rumors last summer, and infatuated with the Matt Holliday bidding in December, then you probably leaped out of your chair on Thursday afternoon.

That's when the news came from the St. Petersburg Times : The Rays and star left fielder Carl Crawford aren't going to talk contract again until after the season is over.

At that point, the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Rangers, Tigers, Giants and others will get their chances to throw millions at Crawford.

The upshot: Barring a World Series title, a dramatic attendance spike, and sudden approval of a new outdoor stadium, the Rays probably won't be able to keep their three-time All-Star.

In other words, you are destined to click through one Crawford rumor after another between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

But even if it's widely assumed that Crawford won't be with the Rays next year, the chances of him being dealt this summer are lower than you might think.

The reason is easy to understand: The Rays will have a hard time justifying a trade unless they drop from the American League East race.

With a roster this good, that's not likely to happen.

Never mind the Yankees. Never mind the Red Sox. Tampa Bay has a playoff-caliber team that should remain in contention well into the second half.

The Rays have an outstanding young rotation, including 2009 team wins leader Jeff Niemann, one of the least-talked-about good pitchers in the game.

They added closer Rafael Soriano to help a leaky bullpen. They have reason to believe B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell will bounce back from disappointing seasons. They have prospects who can contribute, both in the lineup and rotation.

The Rays have wagered a significant amount of money on trying to win this year , even though it may not seem that way in their high-rent division. The payroll will top $70 million -- with an asterisk. Owner Stuart Sternberg has already told WDAE-AM in Tampa that the figure will drop below $60 million in 2011.

They are still spending well less than half of the Yankees' $200 million, but, at least in this case, the relative expense is important. This might be the Rays' best chance of winning a championship over the next several years. They aren't going to relinquish it easily -- not with Soriano, Burrell and first baseman Carlos Pena also set to enter free agency -- even though the team believes it has enough young (inexpensive) talent to sustain a winner.

Opinion as to how much Crawford will earn was varied among a group of nearly 20 agents and club executives polled on Thursday by FOXSports.com. Some of the most common estimates centered on five-year deals worth between $12 million and $16 million per annum.

Others believed that Crawford's annual salary should approach the $18 million that Torii Hunter will receive from the Angels in each of the next three seasons. Hunter, though, has the added value of playing center field and having hit over 20 home runs eight times.

Crawford, meanwhile, plays left field and has never hit 20 homers in a season.

Still, Crawford will benefit from the fact that teams have started valuing defense more in personnel decisions. At 29, he will be a relatively young free agent. He's a .295 career hitter and finished last year with 60 stolen bases.

(The Yankees and Red Sox, naturally, were named by the group of executives and agents as the most likely destinations for Crawford in 2011.)

There is no denying that a slow start for the Rays would make Crawford the subject of nightly chronicling by scouts, writers and bloggers from coast to coast. Halladay, who pitched every fifth day, didn't have to perform every day while being slammed by scrutiny last year with the Blue Jays. But those who know Crawford insist that he'll be able to handle the pressure in all its forms.

Crawford might be this year's version of Halladay and Holliday -- the biggest name on the midseason trade market and the top free agent outfielder -- packed into the same 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame. (He's earning $10 million this year and doesn't have trade protection in his contract.)

Imagine a scenario in which the Rays trail the Yankees by five games in the division and the Red Sox by four in the wild card as of, oh, July 25.

What would general manager Andrew Friedman do?

"The tough part," one National League executive said Thursday, "is what happens if they're in the thick of it."

On one level, it would be excruciating to trade one of the franchise's most popular players while the team is still in contention -- particularly in a market where fan support is flimsy and the future address unclear.

But what if the Rays (much like the Mariners last year) calculate that their chances of making the playoffs aren't as good as the standings would indicate? Or what if stud outfield prospect Desmond Jennings gets ready in a hurry, making for a relatively small difference in output between two months of Crawford and two months of Jennings?

There is the possibility that Friedman, who is known for his aggressiveness in exploring trade scenarios, could find a deal for Crawford that would still help his team win in 2010. The '04 Red Sox traded a famous free-agent-to-be (shortstop Nomar Garciaparra) at the deadline and turned out just fine.

As a small-market GM, Friedman has no choice but to keep an open mind. He always does. The difference this year is that everybody will be trying to read it.