Now or never for current crop of Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- They live in the Land of the Giants, surrounded by big-buck behemoths in the toughest division in baseball.

So even as you watch the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays prepare to unleash the most talented baseball team they've ever had, you also have to wonder: What will become of them?

Where will Carl Crawford be a year from now? Where will Carlos Pena be? Even more importantly, where will this franchise be?

Oh, it's not as if the Rays are about to move to Vegas or San Antonio or Oklahoma City. Or even to Tampa, for that matter. They never beat those drums. They never mouth those threats.

But that doesn't mean they don't wonder where this is leading. They finished 23rd in the big leagues in attendance last season, barely outdrawing teams like the Nationals and Royals. They came off a World Series dream season, hoping that this was how fans were made.

And you know how many more paying customers they drew? A whopping 903 more a game.

They couldn't even average 20,000 fans a game for a World Series rematch against the Phillies. They drew 17,692 people for a September date with the Red Sox. They would have needed to pull in an extra 7,000 paying customers a night just to approach the major league average.

So no wonder owner Stuart Sternberg has already announced the Rays will be lopping payroll next year. No wonder Crawford is already practically being fitted for his new uniform in the Bronx. No wonder this team traded away Scott Kazmir last August while it was in the middle of a wild-card race.

"It's just the world we live in," says manager Joe Maddon. "It's how it's going to be every year. We want to win the World Series … but our peripheral vision has got to be on the future at all times."

And since that's their world, the folks who run this team ought to join the circus -- because they lead the league in juggling.

"We talk about this a lot," says the executive vice president for baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, "having to keep one eye on the present year and one eye on the future."

So while no one likes to say these words or think these thoughts, the Rays are about to launch the most important season in the 13-season history of the franchise. On the field. Off the field.

On the field, they're one of the half-dozen best teams in baseball. But their window to win with this group expires before they flip the calendar to 2011.

Off the field, they're quietly pondering what they need to do to survive in a community where not even a World Series team has turned out to be a force magnetic enough to pull fans into their ballpark.

So this is the unique vise they find themselves locked in -- squeezed by the present and the future, by the Yankees and the Red Sox, by the white lines and the bottom lines.

"We don't have to shoot the moon," says team president Matt Silverman. "But a lot of things have to go right for us to be able to succeed. That's the reality of 2010."

OK, here's another reality of 2010:

The Rays have never had players like Crawford and Pena before. Ever.

Oh, they've had stars before. But they've never had a player quite like Crawford.

Drafted by this franchise 11 years ago at age 17, before the franchise had even won its first 100 games. Developed, nurtured, sculpted by this team into one of the most dynamic stars in baseball. Played his entire big-league career with the Rays. And now, almost surely, about to exit through a free-agent trap door -- unless he gets traded first.

And then there's Pena. The Rays have imported future free agents before, too. But they've never had a player quite like this guy, either.

Grabbed off the scrap heap three years ago, his career at rock bottom. Then turned everything around -- not just his career but his new franchise along with it. And now, here he is at age 31, as popular and visible a face as this team has ever had, as he prepares to bolt for the free-agent auction house.

Maddon talks regularly about how "I want to keep both these guys." Friedman says all the speculation about the inevitability of losing them is "premature." But how hard is it to see where this is heading?

This team can't outbid the Yankees for Crawford. And Pena is a Scott Boras client. So nobody pretends not to hear their clock ticking.

"I've been here so long," says Crawford, "it's scary sometimes having to think of going to another place. … But at the same time, you have to grow up, and it's part of growing up. You can't be afraid. It's like living with your parents your whole life. When it's time to go out on your own, you can't be afraid to take that first step."

Pena, meanwhile, admits he is already savoring what appear to be his final days with the only team where he has ever truly fit.

"I don't take anything for granted," he says. "Even that first year of my contract, I was at the point like, 'Wow, bro. Appreciate this.' And that's my attitude every day. It's not going to last forever. So cherish it. Enjoy it. Bring the best of you every day, 'cause that's what it's all about."

Pena and Crawford are two of the centerpieces of a team that is talented enough to make the Yankees and Red Sox sweat all the way to October. And both those men sense this particular group has a special, confident vibe that could make these Rays all the more dangerous. After the frustrations of last year's third-place finish, this crew seems to have reconstructed its '08 mojo.

"I think we were too demanding of ourselves last year," says Pena. "And that's not a good energy. I'd rather have this team just be relaxed, and expecting good things because we know we can. You see the difference? You don't have to talk it, just know it. And I think this team is in that position this year."

The Rays hit the field these days with the aura of a club that doesn't wonder anymore if it's good enough to hang with the behemoths. And they've sure played like it this spring. They won nine games in a row at one point, and their 12-6 record is the best in the Grapefruit League.

Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without some media invader firing questions at them about the sense of urgency they're supposed to feel to win this year. But to hear Crawford talk, if there is some kind of urgency, it's creating a force for inspiration, not more pressure.

"If this is going to be my last year here, I want to win," he says. "I want to go out on top. I feel like this team is just starting to build something good. It's not like we're going to go back to losing 100 games every year. So if this is going to be my last year -- and I know Carlos feels the same way -- I want to go out on a positive note."

What lies beyond this year isn't their problem. But that's when life will start getting challenging for all the talented people they'll leave behind -- in their clubhouse and their front office.

The most oversimplified part of this team's story is that this is not a win-or-else season for anyone except the free agents who won't be here anymore.

Evan Longoria isn't going anywhere. Ben Zobrist isn't going anywhere. The best young starting rotation in the American League isn't going anywhere. And a new wave of incredible young talent (Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, Tim Beckham and a cast of dozens) is roaring toward the big stage. So this team will be no fun to play against for years to come.

But the record payroll, north of $70 million, being invested in the 2010 Rays? You won't be seeing that again, since Sternberg has made it clear it'll be U-turning back toward the 50s next season. And, well, then what?

If they can drag more people into the seats, then "we'll have more [money] to play with," Silverman says. And it really is that simple.

"We'll never have as much as the Red Sox or Yankees," he says. "There's really no point in beating that dead horse. … We understand our limitations, and we work within those parameters. But we don't deny the connection between attendance and revenues, and the corresponding investments we can make for our organization."

So what happens if it turns out they can't ever convince at least a league-average number of people (roughly 30,000 a night) to stream through their gates -- not this year, not any year? No one ever quite answers that question. But you have to wonder.

This team has been run about as intelligently and creatively these last few years as any organization in sports. But there are only so many postgame ZZ Top concerts any franchise can stage before it begins to question whether the problem is the stadium, the location of the stadium or the market itself.

So don't ignore those stories welling up in Tampa, over on the other side of the bay, about possible locations for a new ballpark closer to the population center. But for now, Sternberg told a media gathering earlier this spring, "the team isn't going anywhere. We're in St. Petersburg, and that's where we play."

But if that's where they play and that's where they're going to play for the foreseeable future, then it can only mean one thing:

The jugglers will have to keep on juggling for a long, long time.

"We feel like we've got a very talented team in 2010," Friedman said. "But we also think we're well-positioned going forward to remain competitive. Obviously, we can't compete against the Yankees and Red Sox and be competitive 10 out of 10 years. That's just Math 101. So it's incumbent upon us to manage our roster accordingly."

Which means there are going to be more Carl Crawfords and more Carlos Penas who play out their free-agent years and move on. Can't help that.

Carl Crawford If this is going to be my last year here, I want to win. I want to go out on top. I feel like this team is just starting to build something good.

-- Carl Crawford

And there are going to be more Scott Kazmirs and Akinori Iwamuras who get traded before they ever get to that point. Can't help that, either.

And, especially, that parade of young impact players heading for the big leagues can't ever stop -- because that part of the operation, Friedman says, is "more important for us than any other team in baseball." (Why? Uh, let's just say the Yankees and Red Sox won't be dropping payrolls into the $50 million range any century in the near future.)

So this is a team that can devote only so much focus on the here and now -- because it can't ever stop looking over the horizon at the there and beyond.

"We're constantly looking at things on many different levels," Friedman says. "And we have to -- to make sure that we don't fall off the cliff and have to take six, seven, eight years to build back."

The Yankees won't ever have to think that way. The Red Sox won't ever have to think that way. But the Rays have no choice but to think that way. So welcome to their season of urgency.

Their clocks might be ticking. But beware the urge to jump to those way-too-easy conclusions. That ticking might turn out to be more trouble for the rest of the AL East than it is for the dollar-challenged little juggernaut that's still walking tall in the Land of the Giants.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.