Too many articles talked about Joe Mauer heading to free agency after this season and signing with the Yankees. That was never going to happen because of Mauer’s native roots and his homegrown status of being a Twins first-round draft choice and first pick overall.*
* Do you think the Twins feel good that they did not take Mark Prior first overall? Just before the draft, Prior was going all John Elway on Minnesota, saying he did not want to play for the Twins. Good thing for Minnesota they listened to Prior’s rants. However, if the homegrown Mauer was not available, the Twins were ready to take Mark Teixeira. Besides Mauer and No. 5 overall Teixeira, the 2001 draft might have the worst first round in history.
Now Yankee fans are clamoring for next season’s free agent list. I have seen articles preaching that the Yankees are going to go after and sign Cliff Lee (and if Lee is healthy, the Yankees will do just that), Jayson Werth of the Philadelphia Phillies (possible), but especially Carl Crawford of the division rival Tampa Bay Rays.
I have read that certain Web sites claim their sources have told them that the Yankees hierarchy “absolutely love Crawford.” Jon Heyman, a respected national baseball writer, also claims the Yankees love Crawford, and they want him to play left field for the Yankees—probably for the next five seasons.
With Crawford as a free agent after this season, it will take a five-year deal to land him. In addition to the Yankees, the usual cast of characters—like the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets—would be in the running, too.
Most baseball executives and media people believe Crawford will sign with the Yankees. Financial estimates are that it will take a five-year deal for about $15 million per year to get Crawford. That is $75 million for a guy with a career split of .297/.335/.437/.772 with an OPS+ of 103, just above league average .
But he steals lots of bases, plays good defense, and has a little pop with his bat.
Except for the pop, with the same amount of plate appearances, that description could be Brett Gardner—and he will cost a whole lot less. I am not saying that Gardner is as good as Crawford, but he will do a lot of the things Crawford does—except for the power.
The Yankees do not need Crawford for 2011, and they will not sign him after this season.
Why? Because, like Mauer, Crawford will re-sign with the only team he has known—the Tampa Bay Rays. They can afford it.
There is so much talk about how the small-market Rays can’t afford Crawford and their other free-agent-to-be, Carlos Pena—and the Rays will lose both players.
The term “small market” is so overused, it is comical. First, revenue sharing reaps teams such as Tampa—and Pittsburgh and Kansas City—at least $25 million every year right at the start. Each team also receives at least $35 million for MLB through licensing agreements.
Second, at the end of the 2010 season—Bye, Tom Hicks—every owner of every baseball team will be stupid rich. The owners made their money outside of baseball, and they are part of the best restricted club in the entire country.
Tampa owner Stuart Sternberg is worth a ton of money. He made it on Wall Street and got out to buy the Rays just before the stock market fell in value.
The idea of the luxury tax and revenue sharing was developed so teams can put that money back into signing free agents—not other teams’ free-agents-to-be, but their own .
That is why the Florida Marlins ponied up the money for Josh Johnson, the Royals ponied up a couple of years ago for Zach Greinke, and the Rays will pay to keep Crawford. Although the Marlins appeared to be forced to pay Johnson, I still believe the Marlins never would have let him leave through free agency.
By having money from a wealthy owner—and revenue and licensing sharing funds in their coffers—the Rays will re-sign Crawford.
The second reason Tampa will re-sign Crawford is that he has been the face of the franchise for a few years now. Sure, Evan Longoria is the younger, power-hitting third baseman. But he has been with the franchise only two seasons, while Crawford will be entering his 13th season with Tampa—his 10th in the majors.
Crawford, who will be 29 this season, was even quoted in the Heyman SI.com piece that “I’ve been here since I was 17. This is all I know .” The Rays and Crawford’s agent, Brian Peters, tried to get a long-term deal done just after the 2009 season. But they were far apart, and talks were tabled until after the season.
That gives the Rays an exclusive negotiating window of about 15 days after the World Series ends to deal with Crawford.
The third—and maybe most important—reason Tampa will re-sign Crawford is that the Rays, excluding arbitration cases, are now only on the hook next season for $13 million in player salaries. Their best player, Longoria, is tied up for through 2016 at very reasonable rates. It is ridiculous that Longoria’s salary is only $2 million this season. It might be the best contract ever for a sports team based upon production received.
Rays who are free agents after this year include Crawford, Pena, Pat Burrell, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, and Gabe Kapler. There’s no way Burrell re-signs. Soriano is a maybe based upon his 2010 season—but not more than a two-year deal—while Balfour, Choate, and Kapler are replaceable spare parts.
The Rays have arbitration deals with many of their younger players, including BJ Upton, Matt Garza, Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, JP Howell, and Dioner Navarro. I believe they get all those guys done for about $25 million—unless they deal Bartlett, who could be a free agent in 2012.
That is about $40 million—I rounded up—really tied up for next season. With a payroll of $70 million this season, Tampa’s obligations are about $30 million under what it is currently paying.
What the Rays do very well is promote their young talent. The have youngsters like Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, Desmond Jennings, Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, and Reid Brignac—who will make an impact this year or next. All will be playing at near league- minimum salaries for the next couple of seasons.
Some people are saying Jennings, a natural center fielder, is destined to take over for Crawford, who plays left field. Jennings is more likely to take over for Upton in center field, with the team moving Upton to right field or out of Tampa by trade.
I mentioned the hard-hitting Sean Rodriguez, one of the Rays younger players. He was obtained from the Los Angeles Angels in the Scott Kazmir trade, and he is expected to play a big role this year with his ability to play multiple positions. The Rays traded Kazmir mostly to rid themselves of his contract so they can afford to re-sign Crawford.
While many are saying the Rays could let Crawford go as a free agent and collect the two draft picks, they would not be getting the top draft picks—unless the Mets sign Crawford. The Rays made their current team by drafting near the top of the first round and by making shrewd trades. The pick from the Yankees or Red Sox would not be near the top.
Finally, I cannot see the Rays letting Crawford go as a free agent—knowing he will likely land with the Yankees or Red Sox—and have to play against him for the next five seasons. While Crawford is a player based upon his legs, he is good enough to give a team the same future production in the next five years as he has during the previous six full seasons.
But that production—an OPS+ of 103—is not good enough for a corner outfielder, and not at that asking price.
Not for a team signing another team’s free agent, but it is good to fit into the scheme of the current team.
The Rays can most certainly afford Crawford at $15 million per year. They could even sign Crawford and Pena and still be at the same salary as last season—but with the versatile Zobrist and Rodriguez providing power, Pena is likely gone.
The Rays will compete this year—at some points this season, they will occupy first place in the AL East and could make the playoffs.
Crawford fits well with the Rays. He is the first homegrown star, the Rays want him back, and he is going to make a lot of money.
And that money is going to come from the Rays.