Cliff Lee shut down the Tampa Bay Rays last night to knock them out of the playoffs. With the Rangers up convincingly late in the game, it became clear that fans were probably watching the Rays' franchise player, Carl Crawford, take his last at bat with the team. The game also likely marked the last appearances with the team of their slugger, Carlos Pena and dominant closer, Rafael Soriano.
The Rays have made it quite clear throughout the year that given their financial and stadium situation, they will be forced to reduce payroll after this year. This means that they have virtually no chance of resigning any of the three big free agents (though its in the realm of possibility that Carlos Pena sticks around after an off-year). It's also possible they'll be forced to deal away some of their more expensive players, who are still cheap by most team's standards, such as Matt Garza and BJ Upton.
The team is going to take a big step back next year. They have a terrific farm system, and fans have already gotten a taste of the impacts that Crawford's heir-apparent Desmond Jennings, and possible future ace Jeremy Hellickson could have, but as young players, time must be given for their development. For the time being at least, it seems that the Rays window of opportunity to capture the World Series has closed.
I picked the Rays as my favorite to win the AL East at the beginning of the season. One of the reasons was the remarkable group of talented players. But another, and perhaps the bigger reason, was that knowing their plans beyond this season, I figured that the front office would be more active in trades. It was clear from the start of the season that this was going to be the Rays shot, and watching them shut down by Texas' big trading-deadline acquisition last night made it evident that somewhere along the line, the Rays front office let the opportunity slip away.
The Rays front office, headed by GM Andrew Friedman, is easily one of the best in baseball. They have had terrific drafts, and added to that talent base through great trades, such as swapping expensive and deteriorating Scott Kazmir for young, talented, Sean Rodriguez, as well as the Matt Garza-Delmon Young deal. This July though, they sat back and allowed the teams they would be battling in the playoffs take nice steps to improve. The Rangers added the deadline's big prize in Cliff Lee, but their division rivals, the Yankees, managed to add a starting DH in Lance Berkman, as well as Kerry Wood who has been a terrific addition to their bullpen. To answer, the Rays added only two giant under-performers, who at best would serve as role-players, in reliever Chad Qualls and outfielder/DH Brad Hawpe.
Obviously, this is judged with hindsight and a lack of information. Maybe their were budgetary issues. Maybe they just couldn't match up with any trading partners. But with a farm system as deep and talented as the Rays, it's hard to imagine that teams wouldn't have been willing to eat tons of salary to have a chance at some of the Rays best prospects, especially considering that a prospect in the lower-half of the Rays' "top-ten" would be near the top of any other team's list.
I understand the desire to protect prospects, especially for a team as financially-strapped as the Rays. But ultimately, the impact of a player like Cliff Lee has been made abundantly clear. Whereas the Yankees could stomach not grabbing Lee at the deadline because of the likelihood of picking him up in free agency, the Rays won't even spend a minute considering that option. Whereas the Twins might be able to talk themselves out of trading away a top prospect this year, because he could put them over the top in the next two, for the Rays, it seems unlikely that any prospect is the difference-maker in the near future.
Maybe I'm wrong, and that some smart off-season moves and great play from Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, Reid Brignac and others bridges the gap and leads the Rays back to the playoffs in the hurry. But that isn't the likeliest bet. The Rays had a chance to win the World Series this year - a chance that they most likely won't have again in the near future. As exciting as last night's game was, you could argue that the Rays lost this one all the way back at the trade deadline.