Offseason Changes for Rays Spell Opportunity for Red Sox

Offseason Changes for Rays Spell Opportunity for Red Sox The end of the Tampa Bay Rays’ season signals a potential upheaval on their roster. Several big names will hit the free-agent market, and the organization already has offered hints it may not be able to afford Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, to name just two of seven potential free agents.

As Tampa Bay struggles to draw big crowds for division-clinching games, owner Stu Sternberg discusses potential new markets in which to move the club and MLB commissioner Bud Selig reiterates a need for a new ballpark for the team, the Rays have given every indication that they will be slashing a payroll that more than tripled since 2007.

In the short term that bodes extremely well for the Red Sox, who figure to be in on Crawford and perhaps others once they hit the free-agent market. While strengthening themselves, the Red Sox could be weakening one of their chief rivals and the defending division champs. Talk about a win-win scenario.

“I think everyone understands that this is as much a business as it is a game, and we have to come to grips that there are going to be changes within the organization,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, one of those who will be around for years to come, recently told ESPN.

In the long term, however, the Rays figure to bounce back, for three big reasons.

One, their starting pitching is young and under team control for several more years, in much the same way that Boston’s rotation is contractually stable.

Two, the old regime that once oversaw a perennial last-place team is no longer. General manager Andrew Friedman has engineered a franchise turnaround that is no fluke.

Finally, Tampa Bay’s farm system remains the best in the business in terms of the players coming up through the ranks, in large part due to Friedman’s reliance on the draft and player development. Maybe 2011 will be a step back if Crawford, Pena and others leave town, but any decline brought on by breaking up the current crew will be a limited one.

The Rays have a replacement for Crawford in Desmond Jennings, one of the top prospects in the game. Replacements at other positions may not be too far off. Righty Jeremy Hellickson could be a top-of-the-rotation guy in a few years.

Where the balance of power could really hit the division is with the bullpen. In Rafael Soriano, the Rays had one of the top closers in the majors this year, a difference maker of major proportions for a squad that gave up too many runs late in games in 2009.

Soriano signed a one-year deal with the Rays last offseason and will be a highly coveted chip for teams league-wide. Imagine how much a guy who saved 45 games in 2010 and has not had an ERA over 3.00 in his last six seasons would mean to a group like the Red Sox, who struggled to find bullpen solutions all season long.

Finding the means to maintain guys like Soriano, and to pay arbitration-eligible mainstays such as B.J. Upton, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett (or trade them for something usable in 2011) within a cash-strapped situation will keep Tampa Bay, the division champs two of the last three years, competitive.

In a division like the AL East, being merely competitive is often not enough, and the Red Sox and others may reap the rewards of the changes in Florida. But having a plan in place to rebuild should keep the Rays around for years to come.

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