ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays traded top pitcher Victor Zambrano to the Mets for top prospect Scott Kazmir for a simple reason - because they could.
Unless the Rays are going to spend the money to sign the top-notch impact players they need to eventually finish ahead of the big-budget Yankees and Red Sox, they need to find them in other ways.
And picking off one of the game's elite pitching prospects (Baseball America ranked only two others higher on its preseason list) from a team that is trying to convince its fans, and itself, that it is in the playoff race isn't a bad way do it.
Especially for a guy who could - and there is an emphasis on could - turn out to be an ace on a contending team.
Zambrano was not going to be that.
The Rays have seen him for nine years. He turns 29 this week. Mets whiz-kid pitching coach Rick Peterson can say what he wants about noticing things on tape and already having suggestions that will correct flaws, but don't think Rays pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and others haven't tried everything.
Zambrano is what he is, and he's not going to get much better.
He was the ace on the Rays, but on a championship team, or even on a borderline contending team like the Mets, he is no better than a No. 3 or No. 4 starter. That doesn't mean he won't help the Mets, especially given the success he has had against NL teams - a 10-1 interleague record.
But eventually - maybe as soon as next season - Kazmir should turn out to be better. And he's younger (20), left-handed, and less expensive.
"We think Kazmir has a chance in the future to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and we have to eventually get our hands on those type of pitchers if we're going to beat the teams we have to beat," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said.
Of course, there are no guarantees Kazmir will reach his potential. The Rays don't have to look far to see two examples of touted, and highly paid, prospects who never did: Matt White and Bobby Seay.
Most of what has been written and said about Kazmir has been glowing. But, as is the case whenever an "untouchable" prospect gets traded, there are going to be whispers, in this case about durability and attitude.
Kazmir missed time last season with an elbow injury and some this year with a rib cage strain. The Mets have kept him on strict pitch counts. There are the usual questions about whether a pitcher who isn't very big (maybe 6 feet, 170 pounds) and throws very hard can hold up. The questions about his attitude stem from his natural cockiness (which isn't a bad thing in a young pitcher) and some comments he made about getting to like the New York scene - "I love the fast-paced life."
If that's all there is, none of it seems to warrant a red flag.
"I think immediately it's going to look like a heck of trade for the Mets," LaMar said. "Over the long scheme I think it will be looked upon as an outstanding trade for both teams."
He may have been being kind.
RAYS RUMBLINGS: There is talk of a 2005 payroll of around $28-30-million, up from about $23-million this year. There may have been some merit to exploring a long-term deal with top prospect B.J. Upton, but the chances of coming up with a total both sides would be happy with given all that could happen over eight or nine years was extremely slim. ... According to an ESPN the Magazine update, Josh Hamilton is home in North Carolina, working construction, helping coach an under-18 AAU team and is sober and hopeful of playing again. ... Second-round draft pick Reid Brignac could quickly develop into a third-base prospect. ... The Rays made the right decision to pass on Juan Gonzalez, who played 33 games for the Royals for $4-million.