First of all, let’s remember that the Rays are going to add two very good players at bargain basement prices next year: stud prospect Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson, the best pitching prospect in baseball. Those youngsters might not be All-Stars in 2011, but they should probably be productive major league players at very low cost. The addition of Hellickson, in particular, could prove to make a big impact on the 2011 season, as it sets Tampa Bay up to have a starting rotation of David Price, James Shields, Matt Garza, Hellickson, and either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemman. That, frankly, is as formidable a 5 man group as you’ll find anywhere in baseball. If they decide to save some money by trading either Garza or Shields, they’d still have a fantastic group. On the strength of starting pitching alone, you’d have to be a fool to write Tampa Bay off in the near future.
But let’s also consider what they won’t be losing. They’ll have 2 of their 3 starting outfielders back, both of their top 2 catchers, all of their starting pitchers, and 3 of their 4 starting infielders. They’ll still have Evan Longoria and David Pricce. So yes, they’re losing Crawford, and the largely overrated Carlos Pena will be a free agent, but the cupboard will hardly be barren in Tampa Bay.
So how will the Rays get to $50 million? Well, let’s look at who won’t be back. Aside from Crawford, Pena, and Soriano, the most obvious candidates to not return next year, in my opinion, are: Jason Bartlett, Dioner Navarro, Dan Wheeler, Willy Aybar, and Lance Cormier. Using the data available at Cot’s, if you add that to the big 3 free agents coming off of the books, and that’s approximately $38 million in payroll reduction. There will be raises in the off-season, of course (Ben Zobrist gets a pretty hefty raise, in particular), but I’m also not taking out the salaries of of guys like Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit, who are free agents after this season, and I’m also assuming Hellickson replaces Davis or Niemman in the rotation, not Shields or Garza. So it’s still very plausible to me that the Rays will easily be able to cut roughly $30-35 million in salary without making a huge impact to the on-field product.
In fact, if Desmond Jennings can be a solid major league starter right away and the Rays can find a free agent 1st baseman to give them more production than Pena (and Pena was worth a whopping 1.0 WAR this year) they could very well be a better team overall next year, if Shields’ overall numbers come down to his 3.71 xFIP of this season, Hellickson is as good as people think he’ll be, and Wade Davis continues to develop. The Rays will probably see the most obvious losses on paper in their bullpen, but as I’m sure most of our readers know by now, relief pitchers are generally not that valuable, and their performance is highly fungible. For as well as he pitched this year, Rafael Soriano was still only worth 1.7 WAR. So while the names might not be as impressive next year, I’m pretty sure the Rays will at least have a chance to put together a pretty good relief unit on a shoestring budget.
Will the Rays win the A.L. East next year? Will they even be in the playoffs again? That’s pretty hard to say given that the East has 3 high quality teams in the division. There’s only room in the postseason for 2 of the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox, and the Rays may very well be the odd-team out again next year. But make no mistake about it, this will be a good team again next year, and it won’t surprise me at all if they’re right there in the thick of the playoff race again. Other teams write the Rays off at their own peril.