Commentary

Huge challenge for money-starved Rays

Tampa Bay facing major changes this offseason, but isn't complaining about its situation

Originally Published: December 7, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Lou Piniella plugged drinking water before his retirement. Joe Torre pitched green tea. And now Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon has joined the ranks of managerial endorsers with a TV commercial for One-A-Day vitamins.

Given the state of affairs in baseball this winter, Maddon might soon be hawking pain relievers.

The American League East Division, always a grind, poses some major challenges to a manager's health and well-being. The Boston Red Sox just fortified their lineup with Adrian Gonzalez, who has averaged 34 home runs per season since 2007 in a park that's a lot more daunting than Fenway. The New York Yankees are working hard to sign Cliff Lee -- and failing that, might turn their attention to former Tampa Bay Rays fixture Carl Crawford. Baltimore just traded for Mark Reynolds and has some other moves in store, and the Toronto Blue Jays are sufficiently deep in pitching that general manager Alex Anthopoulos felt comfortable enough to trade 13-game winner Shaun Marcum to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Joe Maddon
Jeff Griffith/US PresswireJoe Maddon has led the Rays to the postseason in two of the past three seasons.

Maddon's Rays, conversely, are in the process of reconfiguration by subtraction.

Crawford, the team's catalyst and cornerstone player since 2003, will soon be signing a nine-figure deal with the Los Angeles Angels, Yankees or some other well-heeled contender. Carlos Pena is also gone, leaving Dan Johnson and Ben Zobrist as possibilities at first base.

The Rays are exploring trade options for shortstop Jason Bartlett, who could be moved to clear payroll and pave the way for young Reid Brignac, and they're listening to offers for starter Matt Garza, whose value is high right now as the best alternative to Lee not named Zack Greinke.

Meanwhile, general manager Andrew Friedman's biggest challenge is rebuilding a bullpen that's been razed by the loss or possible departures of free agents Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate and Dan Wheeler. In addition, the Rays decided to non-tender J.P. Howell rather than pay him $1 million-plus and nurse him through his recovery from shoulder surgery. That mass exodus has left Andy Sonnanstine, Mike Ekstrom and Jake McGee at the top of Tampa Bay's bullpen depth chart.

Maddon, a noted Rolling Stones enthusiast, must feel as though he was born in a cross-fire hurricane.

The natural temptation is to feel beleaguered or overwhelmed by the ongoing uphill slog. But Maddon isn't built that way. He views every obstacle as an opportunity, and every setback as a defining moment for his team to show its mettle.

"I really want our guys to focus on the tangible stuff that's ours, not somebody else's,'' Maddon said. "Of course you're envious of Cliff Lee pitching there with CC Sabathia [in New York], or whatever. That's ridiculous. That's as good as it gets. Or Gonzalez going [to Boston]. That's awesome for them.

"But I want that to fuel us, too. That's the element as a manager and coaching staff that we have to get through to these guys. We can't worry about the name on the back of the jersey. If we focused on that, we'd get our butts kicked on a consistent basis.''

The Rays won 96 games in 2010, capturing their second division title in three years, behind solid starting pitching and an offense straight out of Bizarro world. They ranked third in the American League with 802 runs scored and 13th with 1,343 hits. Yes, the Rays drew walks in abundance and hit their share of home runs. But after the All-Star break they ranked last in the league with 576 hits -- or one fewer than those dynamic Seattle Mariners.

Crawford's departure, obviously, has both tangible and symbolic ramifications. He's a triples factory and a stolen bases machine in addition to a Gold Glove defender in left field. On Tuesday, Maddon spoke wistfully about Crawford's closing speed and ability to turn sure base hits into outs in a way that few if any left fielders in baseball can match.

Crawford was also a popular teammate and positive clubhouse presence in Tampa, and now he's gone. It was pretty much official when owner Stuart Sternberg shook his hand and wished him well after the Rays' division series loss to Texas in October.

"I don't know that I'll really wrap my mind around it until spring training when it actually slaps you in the face -- or he slaps you in the face with another team,'' Maddon said.

Tampa Bay's bullpen rebuilding project is going to test the ingenuity of Friedman and his staff. Benoit left the Rays to sign a three-year, $16.5 million contract with Detroit as a free agent, and that's emboldened Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Kerry Wood, Scott Downs and the other top setup men to ratchet up their demands. If the bullpen market is too pricey for the Red Sox and Yankees, just imagine how rich it must seem to the Rays.

I really want our guys to focus on the tangible stuff that's ours, not somebody else's. Of course you're envious of Cliff Lee pitching there with CC Sabathia [in New York], or whatever. That's ridiculous. That's as good as it gets. Or [Adrian] Gonzalez going [to Boston]. That's awesome for them. But I want that to fuel us, too.

-- Joe Maddon

Bartlett is a prime trade chip in Tampa Bay's effort to fortify the bullpen. But Houston, San Diego, San Francisco and St. Louis -- four potential trade partners -- have already filled shortstop voids through trades and free agent signings. The Giants weren't interested in moving young lefty Dan Runzler for Bartlett, and Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio are among the affordable trade options that have dropped off the board early in the Hot Stove season. They're the type of pitchers who fit Friedman's profile and his budget.

Rest assured that Friedman and the Rays are too busy spitballing ideas and mulling over scenarios to dwell on the opportunities they've missed. Blue-chip outfield prospect Desmond Jennings gets his big opportunity with the departure of Crawford, and Jeremy Hellickson gives the Rays the rotational depth to consider a Garza trade.

Maddon, looking tanned and rested after several weeks of hanging out, listening to classic rock and riding his bike back home in Southern California, fully expects a plan to evolve as the winter progresses. As long as Friedman keeps working the phones, he's happy to tend to player morale.

"When I took the job with the Devil Rays, everybody said, 'You're nuts trying to compete against the Yankees and the Red Sox. How are you going to compete? Don't you want to move to another division?''' Maddon recalled. "I said, 'No, I don't want to move to another division. You've got to beat the best to be the best.' ''

Contrary to all logic and expectations, the Rays have been the best in the AL East for two of the past three seasons. Now everyone seems to assume that the "window of opportunity'' is about to slam shut on the organization.

Well, almost everyone. Joe Maddon has always been viewed as unconventional in baseball circles. Why should he start buying into the conventional wisdom now?

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer