Let's make a deal, but which one?

Published August 6, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - At the July 2005 trading deadline, the Devil Rays were involved in serious talks with the Mets and Red Sox about three-way deal in which they would have given up Danys Baez, Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo and gotten back a handful of prospects.

Though the specifics of the final offer are impossible to define by anybody who wasn't directly involved, it was generally believed the Rays would have received pitchers Aaron Heilman, Yusmeiro Petit and Jae Seo from the Mets (who would have gotten Manny Ramirez), and pitcher Anibal Sanchez and either pitcher Jon Lester or shortstop Hanley Ramirez from the Sox (who would have gotten Lastings Milledge and Mike Cameron). Plus, the Rays would have saved millions in salary they paid to the veterans since then.

Why the deal fell apart may never be known since it remains a topic of conversation and matter of contention. Blame, claims of greediness and complaints of being hard to work with have been suggested by and against all parties, including the former Rays front office crew led by then-general manager Chuck LaMar.

But what is known is that between July 31, 2005, and July 31, 2006, the Rays traded all three veterans - Baez and Lugo in separate deals to Los Angeles and Huff to Houston.

And this is what they got back: pitchers Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany, infielder Joel Guzman and outfielder Sergio Pedroza from the Dodgers; and shortstop Ben Zobrist and pitcher Mitch Talbot from the Astros. (They did get Seo, though in a different deal.) Guzman could be an impact player, Zobrist is playing in the majors now and Jackson may turn into a serviceable reliever. Tiffany, Pedroza and Talbot are at least a couple of years away.

Meanwhile, Heilman is a key part of the Mets bullpen (and a potential starter), Hanley Ramirez looks like a future star at shortstop and Sanchez and Petit have pitched for the Marlins. And Lester already has won five games for the Sox.

Are they better off right now with the group they got? Or the group they reportedly could have had last year?

FUTURERAMA: The difference, some cynics would say, is slight. But after spending the first four months focused on trying to win more games this season, the Devil Rays are using the final two months looking to be better in the future.

By bringing back Seth McClung and B.J. Upton, and by bringing up Zobrist, the Rays are looking more for answers about 2007 and beyond, such as how, where and even if they fit in.

For example, if McClung can handle the physical and mental responsibilities of being a closer, the Rays could plan for him to be on the job next season and add some veteran support. But if he can't, they need to know soon because they may have to spend time and resources finding someone who can.

"We think with the guys we brought up recently and some guys we will bring up in the near future, that is going to go a long way toward answering questions in the offseason," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

The same thinking applies to Upton and Zobrist. If they can play third and shortstop, the Rays can look to improve - and spend their money - elsewhere. If not, they have to consider alternatives, and might want to act quickly to do so, such as re-signing Ty Wigginton. If one of the options is moving Upton to the outfield, that could make things more complicated, as they would have to consider a major trade - perhaps of Upton or Rocco Baldelli.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Travis Lee, Greg Norton and Tomas Perez are among the Rays believed to have cleared waivers and eligible to be traded in August. ... Lugo, predictably, was not happy when the Dodgers said they plan to use him in the outfield and a utility role. ... Even if the Rays are not trying to mess with the Red Sox as payback for reportedly venturing too far into conversations about Lugo, just the idea that the Sox think they are has some value. ... Former shortstop Kevin Stocker, whose poor play is a reason the Rays are constantly ridiculed for trading Bobby Abreu, had this to say recently to the Philadelphia Daily News: "Tampa Bay was a miserable place. At the time, the organization really struggled. It's still struggling, but they're trying. It kind of sucked the life out of me."