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What Now for the Rays?

With their 5-1 loss at the hands of the Texas Rangers last night, the Tampa Bay Rays 2010 season came to an end. The Rays once again fielded a highly talented team, and although the end result wasn’t a championship, 96 wins and an AL East championship should be viewed as a successful season. But the Rays are a team with an unfortunate financial situation and a stadium which isn’t about to help that anytime soon. Now, after three relatively successful seasons and two playoff appearances, we are forced to ask the question of whether Tampa can sustain this kind of success going forward.

Clearly, the Rays have assembled a vast array of talent on their roster, but in the age of free agency, it’s difficult to hold such units together for an extended period of time. This inevitability will strike the Rays this winter, as they will lose many key players to free agency. This list includes:

Carl Crawford (6.9 WAR)
Carlos Pena (1.0 WAR, 6.8 WAR in 2008 + 2009)
Rafael Soriano (1.7 WAR, +5.0 WPA)
Randy Choate (0.5 WAR as LOOGY)
Grant Balfour (1.2 WAR)

Obviously, the key loss here is Crawford, but Soriano and Pena are both good players. Balfour and Choate both contributed to a solid bullpen as well. These players contributed over 10 WAR last season. In the hypercompetitive American League East, a ten win drop could easily push the Rays from the division lead to seven games behind the Wild Card at the end of the season. Even considering that the players that will take their place should be talented – the Rays were one of the deepest teams in the league last season – the Rays will likely drop at least 5 or 6 wins. With the Yankees strong as ever and the Red Sox looking to recover from an injury plagued year, that might be enough to hold Tampa out of the playoffs.

The Rays have also confirmed that the payroll will drop significantly after this season. That means players entering their later arbitration years such as Matt Garza and B.J. Upton could hit the trade market in an attempt to lower costs, only adding to the loss of players through free agency.

The Rays do have some assets ready to take the places of those who will exit, as their minor league system is in great shape. Desmond Jennings, who saw some action in the latter half of the season as well as the playoffs, is the heir apparent to Carl Crawford and shows that same kind of athleticism in the outfield. Jeremy Hellickson‘s debut showed that he should be more than ready for a spot in the Major League rotation. The Rays have three other five-star prospects, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein and six others above a three-star ranking, showcasing the depth of the Rays’ system.

At least immediately, though, the young potential stars in the system aren’t going to be able to make up for the players who are outgoing. The loss of those players, the budgetary constraints that they will face, and the division that they are in will provide a mammoth challenge in the coming years. There’s too much still in place to call the championship window closed, and the Rays are loaded with talent both on and off the field. Still, the deck is stacked against them, and a return to the postseason will be difficult to attain.