The Rays are willing to spend this season, but they're lowering payroll under $60MM for 2011. The upcoming payroll drop means next year's team will look much different than the one that's off to a 55-36 start this season. And as any Rays fan will tell you, prospective free agents Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano could all be playing elsewhere a year from now.
The Rays can buy out the options for Dan Wheeler and Willy Aybar after the season to create some flexibility for 2011. They can let Grant Balfour and Randy Choate walk as free agents. And they can also non-tender or trade Jason Bartlett (who could earn $5-6MM in his final arbitration season) and Dioner Navarro (who could earn $3MM or so through arbitration). Even if all six of those players are on different teams in 2011, the Rays won't have much wiggle room unless owner Stuart Sternberg decides to spend more.
Now that Pat Burrell's gone, the Rays aren't stuck with any bad contracts, but GM Andrew Friedman won't likely have much spending power this offseason. B.J. Upton, Matt Garza, J.P. Howell, Lance Cormier and Andy Sonnanstine will get raises through arbitration. When you combine their salaries and the aforementioned buyouts with guarantees to Ben Zobrist ($4.6MM), James Shields ($4.25MM), Kelly Shoppach ($3MM), David Price ($2.2MM) and Evan Longoria ($2MM), you reach $32MM or so in a hurry.
That leaves the Rays with about $25MM to fill out their bullpen, add a first baseman and a DH and complete their roster with cheap players already in the organization like Wade Davis and Sean Rodriguez. When you consider that the Crawford-Pena-Soriano trio makes $27.5MM this year, $25MM doesn't seem like so much money.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Crawford demand $17MM per season on the open market, as Matt Holliday did last winter. The list of potential suitors for the Rays' left fielder is a long one and it includes big spenders like the Yankees and Angels. It would take a lot of maneuvering for the Rays to pay Crawford market value and keep their payroll below $60MM.
Admittedly, this analysis tells us something we already knew (keeping Crawford will be tricky) and reminds us that there are still many unknowns. Anything could happen, since the offseason is months away. Crawford could stop playing like an MVP candidate and the team could trade B.J. Upton or decide to raise payroll. As painful as it would be, the Rays could even trade Crawford.
There are many variables, but we know this: as long as Crawford keeps playing excellent defense and hitting better than ever, his free agent value will be sky-high and it will be difficult for the Rays to keep their star left fielder in Tampa without leaving substantial holes on next year's team.