John Romano's worried that the Rays' fate in 2011 might already be set by the end of the Winter Meetings next week:
- As of now, the Rays are still contenders in the American League East.
Even without Carl Crawford. Even without Rafael Soriano. Even without Carlos Peña and Joaquin Benoit. There are scenarios out there where the Rays can find enough cheap relievers and one or two bats to remain capable of 90-plus victories.
Which is precisely how they will proceed going into next week's winter meetings in Orlando. They will look for the perfect deal. They will try to find the perfect player on the margins. They will operate as if a pennant is still within reach.
And if that doesn't work, they should be willing to go in a completely different direction.
If it looks like their best deal is to strip down and go longer-term, the Rays should not hesitate to put themselves in position to contend in 2012 or '13. Even if it means taking a couple of steps backward in 2011 to do it.
Sorry, but I don't see that happening because I think the guys who run the organization are just too bloody smart to reach Opening Day without putting a roster together that's capable of winning 90 games. And if you can win 90, you can win -- by dint of luck or acumen -- 95, and get into the playoffs.
The math is actually pretty simple. The relievers the Rays lost are replaceable, as nearly all relievers are. Carlos Pena, wasn't actually a good player last season. I don't think Willy Aybar is a part of the solution, but it can't be that hard to find somebody who hits right-handed and plays first base, and a Dan Johnson / somebody platoon would at least approach Pena's production.
Which leaves the big question of how to replace Crawford. Almost every day, the Rays began each game with two of the six or eight best players in the American League. That's a huge edge. Now one is gone, and they're not going to come up with anyone just as good. It's my contention that to get close the Rays have to trade Jason Bartlett and one of their six starting pitchers. With the caveat that David Price is obviously untouchable, I would argue that it really doesn't matter which of the other five they trade; they should just deal whichever of them brings the most talent back.
One more caveat: If "the most talent back" includes (or consists entirely of) very young players who aren't ready to do much in the majors, maybe that's a deal still worth making, in which case maybe it really would become time to think about 2012.
Only in that event, though. Even in the absence of Crawford and those other ex-Rays, the franchise still sports one of the more talented rosters in the majors, along with one of the more talented collection of front-office executives. Right now, I wouldn't give these Rays more than an outside chance of finishing ahead of the Yankees and the Red Sox. Let's check back in a week, though. And then again on Opening Day.