Rays must determine Lugo's fate

Published July 16, 2006

Now comes the hard part. Now that three of the older and higher-priced veterans have been moved, the Devil Rays face their toughest decision of the summer. Perhaps the toughest in franchise history.

What to do with Julio Lugo?

Trade him before July 31, even though no one waiting in the wings is ready as a replacement? Or keep him until the offseason, even though he might fetch a contract more lavish than the Rays have ever given?

These are questions without easy answers. Choices that could be argued logically, and loudly, in either direction.

Trading Aubrey Huff? Oh, come on. When the salary is more bloated than the batting average, it's time to move on. Dealing Toby Hall? Yeah, tough call. He's losing playing time to a rookie and a geezer in Los Angeles.

As a front office executive, decisions such as those are essentially made for you. The only suspense is in the details.

Hall, Huff and, for that matter, pitcher Mark Hendrickson were not in Tampa Bay's long-range plans. So, rather than winning a few insignificant games in 2006, why not save money and acquire prospects for 2008?

The Lugo situation, on the other hand, is completely different. He could be a part of Tampa Bay's future. He has done enough to warrant a new contract.

The dilemma is in the dollars.

How much is Lugo worth? He seems to believe, as a pending free agent, he can get a four-year deal in the $35-million to $40-million vicinity.

And there is some basis for Lugo's hopes. The past three seasons, his offensive numbers closely resemble those of Orlando Cabrera, Rafael Furcal and Edgar Renteria. Those three will make between $7.5-million and $9-million in 2006.

"There's a shortstop market set up," Lugo told Times baseball writer Marc Topkin. "Just look at it."

So maybe Lugo is worth $9-million a season to the Mets. Or to the Red Sox. Or to some other big-market team with lots of zeros in its bank account.

The question is whether he is worth that much to the Rays. And whether they can afford to devote 20 percent of their payroll to one player.

There is no doubt Lugo brings a lot to the franchise. He is a more complete player than either Huff or Hall. And he has a relentless energy that can be infectious on the bench. He is a rung below All-Star status, but he is higher up the ladder than most of the current Rays.

Ultimately, it becomes a decision of value. Is his worth to the ballclub proportional to his salary on the open market?

I'm guessing no.

Lugo, 30, may be the most attractive shortstop heading to free agency, and he may be entering his prime, but a $9-million-a-season player should be a bona fide star. He should drive in 100 runs or hit 30 homers or have an on-base percentage around .390 or win Gold Gloves every season.

Lugo is pretty good at a lot of things, but he is not terrific at anything. And it's hard to justify the largest salary in team history for a player who is best described as better than average.

Look at the highest-paid shortstops in the majors and they all come from big-market clubs with huge payrolls. For most teams, it is a position that can be filled adequately for a lot less.

If all goes according to plan, Tampa Bay will be a strong offensive team in the very near future. Between Carl Crawford, Jorge Cantu, Rocco Baldelli, Jonny Gomes, Delmon Young and B.J. Upton, the Rays potentially have a half-dozen players capable of 20 or more homers and 80 or more RBIs. And that doesn't include Elijah Dukes or Evan Longoria.

So maybe Tampa Bay can afford to go cheaper at shortstop. Maybe the Rays can get a dependable fielder without quite as much offense as Lugo.

Maybe the Rays can use the millions they would save on Lugo's contract to put together a pitching staff that can compete with the Yankees and Red Sox.

This is what the Rays are pondering today. This is why they are willing to listen to offers for Lugo. You should understand it is not a question of being cheap. It is more a matter of being shrewd.

What would shrewd look like?

Well, it could be finding a pennant contender willing to ship a premium prospect or two in exchange for Lugo in July.

And then sneaking in to re-sign Lugo in December if it turns out that his market value isn't as great as he hoped.

This, of course, would be the best-case scenario for the Rays. It would be, essentially, having their cake and their shortstop, too.

Yes, they'd be taking a risk of losing Lugo permanently if they don't rush to sign him to a multiyear contract before the season ends. But when the cost could run up to $40-million, it's a risk worth taking.

What we have here is new terrain for the Rays.

They've never had a player heading toward free agency with as much value as Lugo.

It can be scary and it can be dangerous.

But it can also be an opportunity.