It seems odd, but the most compelling Rays hot stove item has nothing to do with this off-season. Well, it has something to do with this year, just not as much as it does with next year, or the year after next. All eyes will be on the Rays and a certain free agent after this season. Will there be an extension? A trade? Will the Rays just let him walk? I'm not talking about Carlos Pena or Pat Burrell. Instead, obviously, Carl Crawford. It seems like just yesterday Crawford signed the extension. So let's examine the three means of action the Rays can take with Crawford moving forward.
Let's start with the basics. Crawford's birthday in early August turned him 28-years-old, the period in which most baseball players begin experiencing their statistical prime. Next year is the final year of a four-year, $15.25M extension (which included two club options worth $18.25M) signed way back in April 2005. He is the organization's career leader in plate appearances, runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, strikeouts, and stolen bases. Many would describe him as the Rays' franchise player, although Evan Longoria has a fine argument too.
Over the last three years Crawford has posted wOBA's (stolen bases included) of .367, .319, and .365. In 2006, Crawford's wOBA was .368. Consistency. Defensively, Crawford is the best left fielder in baseball and it's not particularly close. Last three years UZR/150: 17.5, 25.6, -1.4. I'm not sure what happened in 2007 (horrible ARM rating mostly) but weigh that however you wish and the end result is Crawford being a plus-plus defender. That means 10 < x < 15 runs every season with maybe a down season or two.
If you examine Crawford's defense a little closer, you'll find that Crawford's best asset is (unsurprisingly) his range. Since 2002 Crawford's range ratings are as follows:
Crawford's top two seasons by RngR have came over the last two years. That's insane to think about. Most research has indicated that defensive skills begin to decay well before their offensive skills brethren. We're talking mid-20s instead of early-30s. Crawford plays a position with normally weak defenders, and UZR is scaled to league average, so +20 in 2009 may have been +25 in 2005, still it's remarkable to think he's only gotten better relative to the rest of the league's left fielders.
The time period in which UZR encompasses doesn't help much when trying to look at how players with similar skill sets at similar ages progressed. Those players are still around Crawford's age. or weren't to begin with. and that just complicates any type of comparison or projection based on historical context. We'll get back into this in a few paragraphs once we start looking at comparable players.
The problem (and something even the most knowledgeable on the situation will have only marginally more information than us about) is whether the turf will affect Crawford's aging more so than if he played on grass all these years. He's complained multiple times and the Rays have done their best to curb the damage by giving him multiple days off at a time. Has that helped? Who knows.
Richards was a 6'0", 175 lbs. lefty from South Carolina State University. The San Diego Padres made him the first selection in the 1975 amateur draft and he reached the majors two seasons later as a 23-year-old and hit .290/.363/.390. He would play in 462 games over the next three years, batting .296/.363/.390 and would fall off over the ensuing four seasons as he played in only 418 games and possessed a .716 OPS. Like Crawford, Richards stole bases and mostly played left. Unlike Crawford, he never played a game after turning 31-years-old in 1984.
Finley is the most well-known player of the three since he's the most recent in our conscious. Holder of the longest career of the trio, Finley broke into the majors in 1989 as a 24-year-old and didn't exit until after a brief stint in 2007 with the Colorado Rockies as a 42-year-old. It's easy to say he was also the most successful since he batted .271/.332/.442.
Webster was a switch-hitting high school kid from Kansas who broke into the majors as a 24-year-old in 1983 with Toronto. He would move to the other Canadian team within two years which began a career as a journeyman. After Montreal he moved to the north side of Chicago, then to Cleveland, then Pittsburgh, and finally to Los Angeles where he finished his career in 1995 as a 36-year-old. His career line: .263/.330/.401.
Here's a graphical look at how the three progressed by age:
For our purposes (A.K.A: because FanGraphs only allows for three players on these neat comparison graphs) Richards is a bit out of sorts. Barring something unforeseen, Crawford is playing past the date he turns 30. Even if he loses an arm someone will employ him as a pinch runner. If he loses a leg he's still bound to be quicker than Raul Casanova. Two things to note: 1) Crawford was in the majors before most of these guys were drafted, 2) Crawford has been better than both to this point despite that. As seen here:
There isn't a clear comparison to Crawford out of those three. Johnny Damon is one that always comes up as well. This seems to work better than any of the ZiPS comparables. Damon broke into the minors at an early age, and while his performance was lesser than Crawford's in the early years, he had a better run before hitting his prime which ... wasn't' much of a prime. He was still good (and still is with the bat) but if Crawford follows his path then he's already had his best offensive season.
In the UZR era Damon has never marked as an above average defender. He had two seasons (one in 2002, the other in 2007) with a positive ranking, but for the most part he's never had the range that Crawford displays and his arm is weaker.
With all of this information we need to know what to expect from Crawford not just in 2010, but also in 2011, 2012, heck maybe 2015. Whether Crawford's agent knows about WAR or not is irrelevant. His client is making $10M in 2010 and coming off his second best offensive season. There is little reason or incentive to sign a contract that pays Crawford less than $10M annually without even checking the market. Same can be said for taking a four-year deal. Odds are, Jason Bay will get a four-year deal, he's not as young as Carl will be and he has old player skills. If Bay can get that, then Carl damn sure can get five or six years.
Thanks to a 5.5 WAR season this year, Crawford's average wins total the past three years is just under 4. That's slightly worse than his impressive stretch from 2004-6 in which he totaled at least 4.5 WAR annually without touching 5. Let's set the baseline for next year at 4. Maybe he exceeds that expectation, maybe he doesn't, this is a conservative projection and when performing this type of analysis you should aim for the medium or even high-end of the probability scale more so than the low-end (i.e. what is Crawford MOST likely to perform like rather than WHAT IF he starts hitting for more power. That would be a nice bonus though.)
So, if 2010 is 4, then let's make 2011 3.6. And 2012 3.2, and so on. Let's also assume he signs a four-year deal with the Rays because he likes the area and feels they are committed to winning - note: I know I totally went for the "He can get more length on the open market" angle earlier, and I think it's true, this is just another hypothetical - that means we have a WAR line of: 4, 3.6, 3.2, 2.8, and 2.4. Of course, with free agents you aren't paying for the future as much as the past, meaning Crawford's probably making more than the 2.8 WAR is worth, but there's no way around it, barring club options and such. Here's how this works out:
That's four-years, $80M. Say Crawford just loves the team and takes a 10% discount, that's still 4/72, or $18M/year on average. Odds are a deal like that is structured so Crawford makes something like 14/18/20/20. That gives the Rays a small window to generate more revenue (roughly three seasons from now) until they have to start paying $20M to one player. Realistically, this could lead to Crawford being traded before those huge, huge paydays kick in. It just depends on how everything else works out.
Maybe Crawford takes fewer dollars than he's worth, but betting on that happening again is like betting on back-to-back-to-back rolls of snake eyes. The Rays have never reached the point where they paid a single player $20M during a season. Looking at Evan Longoria and James Shields' contracts respectively, they max out under $13M. That means an investment of this size is unprecedented. Now, again, it may happen, but realistically it's going to take a heck of an unselfish effort by Crawford and his agent, and if they aren't willing to make that sacrifice once more then there should be no ill will beseeched upon them. Their responsibility is to is look out for Crawford, not the Rays.
With such you have to look at the contingency plans. That would be Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist, or Matt Joyce. You also have to keep in mind that signing Crawford is not a vacuum maneuver. By allocating those future dollars to him, you take away the potential of signing B.J. Upton or someone else for the long-haul. It's a bit of a false dichotomy to name a single player from the current roster because in three years this team will look almost nothing like it does today. Just keep the ramifications in mind.
If Crawford is unlikely to be a Ray next year around this time, then that leaves two options. 1) Trading him at some point over the next 12 months or 2) letting him walk as a free agent and getting draft compensation in exchange. Let's examine both options.
The time to do this was last deadline. Advocating a trade now is going to mean taking less value than most would like. Buster Posey is not coming back for Crawford. Much like with the ignorance of the agent or the selflessness of Crawford, you cannot - reread that - assume every General Manager is going to swoon over Crawford so much as to give the Rays six years of a near-ready catcher. There are some GMs who taking advantage of is easier than others, but nobody is quite that dumb.
The return for one year of Crawford is probably less than you would hope. Even with some wins-starved GM out there looking to add one final piece. Further, trading Crawford becomes even more tricky due to the Rays almost certainly being in contention beyond the trade deadline. That leaves the waiver period (two months of Crawford would bring back even less) and that's about it.
Maybe someone offers a fantastic deal this off-season but I'm not counting on it. Which leaves ...
Otherwise known as: getting draft compensation while having zero say over whether Crawford stays in the league or division. Besides the fact that Crawford is projected to be a Type-B (no, really), this is also a bit risky because if a top-15 team signs Crawford then the Rays don't even land an extra first round pick, instead just a compensation and round two pick. And remember, this is assuming Crawford achieves Type-A status. Which, he should, but the ratings system is inherently flawed and like most things MLB, probably not changing anytime soon.
There's no guarantee the Rays get a good player in those slots, but as Dave Cameron showed a while back, this seems to work out better than trading a guy in his final year. Let me quote Cameron's conclusion verbatim:
Now, this isn't a completely thorough cost/benefit analysis. By trading for prospects, you're not incurring the costs of signing the players, as you are with compensation picks, so the financial outlay is several million dollars higher by going with the draft picks. The payoffs are going to happen a year or two later by taking the draft picks versus taking the prospects in most cases.
But, the evidence is clear - the expected return by trading an all-star in the last year of his contract is not any higher than the expected return of letting that player walk at the end of the season and collecting two draft picks as compensation. The Trade Ichiro brigade are living on a false premise. The organization will not be any better off by dealing Ichiro in July than they would be if he left in October of his own free will.
When you factor in the added value of still having Ichiro on the team in August and September, the exclusive two week negotiating window that the team would have with him at the end of the season, and the actual chance (no matter how slim you think it is) that he might re-sign with the team, and the best path is astoundingly clear.
The Rays have never received a compensation pick for a player. Never. That's not too hard to believe because prior to the new administration you had three types of players with this franchise.
1. Players at the end of their careers.
2. Players who didn't belong in the league.
3. Youngsters, years away from free agency.
The first tier is for players like Wade Boggs, Al Martin, Jose Canseco, and Greg Vaughn. Tier two is players like old Al Martin, young Reggie Taylor, and Jason Smith. The third tier is full of guys like Rocco Baldelli, Crawford, Aubrey Huff, Chad Gaudin, Chad Orvella, and so on. The tiers the Rays were missing included "Players in post-free agency extensions" and "Free agent acquisitions", amongst other things the organization lacked.
Before taking over, the new guys gave the green light to re-sign Crawford, they then locked up Baldelli, and eventually traded Danys Baez, Lance Carter, Huff, Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson, and Julio Lugo before any of them reached free agency. Were those the right moves? Impossible to say for sure, but one of the advantages of trading is being able to identify the players of whom are available. Trying to project the 2011 draft class at this rate is impossible. Trying to identify whether the player at pick 25 will be more valuable than Prospect Y is insane.
Still, as long as this franchise has existed there has never - ever - been a more important decision than what will take place with Crawford. There are obstacles and almost certainly trapdoors sitting just beyond the horizon. Trading Scott Kazmir was easy. Doing anything with Crawford is going to require some intensive attention to detail and obsession with rechecking and then checking once more just to make sure everything is in order since, you know, Crawford is basically a tax return form.
Copping out is something I hate to do. I like being definitive when plausible and declarative when necessary, but really I have no flipping clue what I would like done with Crawford. An extension to keep Crawford as the true Rays player would be fantastic, however I know it's unrealistic, and further I fear what this could lead to down the road. A trade or Crawford leaving via free agency will cause me an infinite amount of headaches if I'm still on this site and sane at that point. 
Feel comfortable with this front office in control. At worst they'll trade Crawford and get the best possible return which eclipses the draft return. At best they bedazzle Crawford and his agent into a deal that defers money 20-25 years down the road in exchange for less money now. As much as I love this current ownership and management, it seems unlikely they'll be here a quarter of a decade from now. Although, if they are, I won't be complaining.
I guess the same can be said for Carl Crawford and the 2010-1 Rays. Here's to finding out the answer sooner rather than later this off-season.
 I hesitate to use PECOTA for a few reasons. A) It's paid content, meaning I don't know how much sharing they consider too much. B) PECOTA isn't spelled with D. Still, for those interested, the top comparables are Deion Sanders, Darin Erstad, Terry Puhl, Johnny Damon, Claudell Washington, Lou Brock, Willie Davis, Willie Wilson, Lloyd Moseby, and Blake McBride. Marquis Grissom, Steve Finley, and Coco Crisp show up in the next 10.
 And for those who prefer Baseball-Reference's similar players, the top 10 through age 26 are Roberto Clemente, Whitey Lockman, Jimmy Sheckard, Sam Crawford, Johnny Damon, Claudell Washingotn, Tim Raines, Mike Tiernan, Rickey Henderson, and Buddy Lewis. The top 10 overall are Blake McBride, Phil Bradley, Freddy Leach, George Wtakins, Charley Jones, Danny Green, Socks Seyboid, Harry Rice, Bug Holliday, and Frank Catalanotto.
 A good rule to follow when rosterbating is this: if you are adamantly for a trade as a fan of your team, then go ahead and add another player or two heading to the other team. For instance, I'd do Crawford for Felix Hernandez all day. So I'll add Reid Brignac to the fold to try and even things out. It works. Trust me.
 The terms "as an analyst" and "as a fan" have been thrown around often. Few have used the "as a blogger on a site with rampant community functions and capabilities ..." tag yet though. I cannot wait until the first "RAYS ARE CHEAP BECAUSE CRAWFORD SIGNED WITH THE YANKEES FOR 100 MIL" FanPost.