During the down years, the Rays often had just a single bright spot, and his name was Carl Crawford. He was the star toiling in obscurity, putting up +4.5 to +5.0 win seasons for three straight years on terrible teams. He combined electrifying speed with gap power and terrific defense, making him one of the game’s truly consistent five tool players.
However, while the Rays boomed last year, Crawford’s bat went bust, and it hasn’t recovered through the first several weeks of April. His power has gone south while he’s simultaneously making less contact, and that’s never a good combination. He still chases too many pitches out of the strike zone, but he could get away with it when he was punishing pitches over the plate.
While they’re certainly contenders again this year, and Crawford has plenty of time to rebound and return to previous form, I have to wonder if the Rays aren’t beginning to think that now might be a good time to explore trading their left fielder. After all, the organization isn’t really hurting for outfielders.
Ben Zobrist‘s early season surge has pushed the planned Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler platoon to the back burner. Zobrist showed some legitimate skills last summer, and his defense in the outfield has been much better than expected after making the transition from a poor defensive infielder. If Tampa feels that Zobrist can continue to make strides and play at a level worthy of regular playing time, the Gross/Kapler platoon is a ready-made Crawford replacement already on the roster.
The team isn’t hurting for depth beyond those guys, either. Matt Joyce, acquired in the Edwin Jackson trade, is hanging in Triple-A waiting for a chance to get back to the majors after an impressive rookie campaign. Behind him, 22-year-old top prospect Desmond Jennings is destroying the Double-A Southern League, and showing the tools that make him one of the most exciting young players in the minors. If Fernando Perez is able to return from injury, he’d add yet another outfield option.
The Rays are flush with outfielders to the point that they don’t have playing time for the talent they have on hand, much less the talent they have waiting for a promotion. Dealing Crawford might not seem like the most usual move for a team trying to win now, but it might be worth exploring the market to see if a deal is out there that makes sense. The marginal hit they’d take in replacing him could be significantly less than the improvement they’d be able to make elsewhere.