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If Crawford's available, Rays better make 'em beg

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist
Published June 15, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - They are sniffing around in Los Angeles and Anaheim. Talking internally in Colorado, and exploring the possibilities in Chicago.

Everywhere in baseball, it seems, teams are wondering how much it might cost to purchase the prime of Carl Crawford's career.

You could start with an arm and a leg.

Then add five more of every limb.

You have a potential No. 1 pitcher? Sweet, but what else is in your pocket? Because there can be no 1-on-1 deals here. And 2-for-1 may not do, either.

Crawford already is one of the elite players in the game. Add his tender age and a friendly contract, and he is darn near untouchable.

He is Johnny Damon, but much younger and far cheaper. He is Shannon Stewart, but with more speed and power. He is Bobby Abreu eight years after the Devil Rays let him get away the first time.

Crawford is a decade of potential highlights just waiting for the cameras to find and adore him. And the best part is his story is just beginning.

He already is closing in on 700 hits and 200 stolen bases. He has more than 250 RBIs and is a career .290 hitter. That's more hits than Pete Rose had at 24. More stolen bases than Lou Brock and more RBIs than Barry Bonds.

In other words, Crawford is a rising star on a franchise that, for too long, has been the black hole of baseball's universe.

That doesn't even take into account a contract that could keep him here through 2010 and pays him, on average, less than $5-million in 2007 and '08.

That may not mean much to the Yankees, but it's a huge factor for a team with revenue issues, such as the Devil Rays.

Does this mean the Rays should turn the ringer off their phones? No. Does it mean they should hang a Do Not Disturb sign on the clubhouse door? No. When you are this far from the promised land, you have to be willing to trade your convertible if someone offers a more dependable ride.

But the Rays have to start out choosy. Then get picky and, later, consider fussy. They have to look at the Scott Kazmir trade and say that would be a nice starting point, because anything less might cause a riot.

In southern California, there has been talk the Angels might soon call the Rays and offer starting pitcher Ervin Santana for Crawford. I would suggest executive vice president Andrew Friedman be prepared for this possibility with a speaker phone, a leather chair and a Whoopee cushion.

You see, other teams tend to look at the Rays as easy marks. And, by gosh, they should. When it comes to trades, Tampa Bay has been outscored about 16-to-Kazmir. So why shouldn't the Angels, or anyone else, take a flier?

Plus, there is a perception around the country that the Rays need to reduce their surplus of young outfielders and begin stocking pitchers. Theoretically, this might be accurate. In reality, the Rays have no reason to be in a hurry.

Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes are outstanding prospects, but they both need to grow up. Rocco Baldelli is finally back on the field, but his health must be monitored. Jonny Gomes is no flash in the pan but, as an outfielder, he makes a fine designated hitter. Joey Gathright looks like a spare part.

Crawford is the only outfielder in the bunch who is without flaw or concern, which is why he is coveted by everyone else.

The Rays may eventually have to move pieces to find room for these guys - including B.J. Upton, who is almost certainly heading to the outfield - but there is no reason to hurry the process. The Rays are not contenders. And they will not be contenders in 2007. So why deal Crawford this summer?

Why not give Baldelli, Dukes, Upton and Young more time to solidify their places in the majors? Then, if the surplus still exists, a trade can be made.

But, as of today, the Rays should sit quietly. (Other than dumping Aubrey Huff and his salary for whatever they can get in return.)

The bottom line is the Rays don't have to deal Crawford. They don't want to deal Crawford. And, unless someone offers a package too lopsided to ignore, they shouldn't deal Crawford.

What would it take to make a lopsided package? Depends, I suppose, on the other team. But it would have to involve a young pitcher capable of being a frontline starter. And it would have to include at least one other major-leaguer, or two quality prospects.

In the end, the new Rays regime should not be held accountable for the mistakes of the past. But, at the same time, the front office must understand how history has left it in a perilous position.

Forget a honeymoon period; these guys are working on an extended blind date. One stupid move, and they're driving home alone.

So trade Carl Crawford?

Sure, if you get the right arm.

And some legs.

And you've got the guts.

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