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The players want the Rays to sign Craig Kimbrel

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But is it the right choice for the team?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

One difficulty in writing about the Rays is recognizing the realities of balling on a budget. There’s always an elephant in the room and it’s never getting smaller, and most of the time it goes unacknowledged by the players and staff.

That recently changed.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg was asked on Feb 19 about whether the team could pursue generational closer and free agent Craig Kimbrel, who remains unsigned. Surprisingly, Sternberg was willing to answer that question with honesty:

“I’ll be frank with you: it’s too much money for us. It’s just too much money. I would take him tomorrow if it was in a range that we were gonna be able to afford and it make a difference, but I’m sorry. Not happening.”

Sternberg then interrupted the next question to add, “No $15-20 million closers are walking through the door!”

It was funny moment, and the press laughed, but it was also a telling one for the players — like Cy Young winner Blake Snell, who recently said he’d not been approached by the Rays with a long-term contract offer, even though such a contract could be reasonable.

The team is hoarding dollars in a year where pre-arbitration players stack the roster, presumably to provide payment in the years to come to stars like Snell or Willy Adames when they reach arbitration (not unlike what the Yankees are doing right now).

Snell says that’s not good enough for a team with 90-win swagger:

“I want Kimbrel,’’ Snell said Saturday. “He’s a veteran. He’s established. He’s the best. Who wouldn’t want the best closer on their team? [...] I don’t know what they’re thinking. I’m pushing money. I want us to push as much as we’re able to. As much as we can get rid of, let’s go dump it into his hands.’’ [tampabay.com]

Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin is able to report these statements in a fair and proper context, and if you have yet to go behind the paywall to get that context, I implore you to consider doing so.

Here’s the gist: Snell is passionate about winning, he’s not just dissenting with the front office; additionally, his teammates agree but he’s being the vocal leader on Kimbrel as a leader in the clubhouse (like Archer before him).

In discussing payroll, Topkin also notes the Rays could spend mid-season on a big bat after opting not to sign one in the winter with the money they’ve saved in the offseason (like, say, if the real answer to the roster really is Nelson Cruz, a name they could not commit to last December).

The takeaway from Topkin’s analysis: the Rays will throw their money around eventually. The team is listening to their players, and wishing for Kimbrel is not “a potential cause of discontent in the clubhouse.”

But when the Rays don’t have a closer and a guy with 300 saves is available, do you wish for the next Rafael Soriano, or hope the Rays already have a Fernando Rodney in camp?

Is Kimbrel’s millions of dollars required to sign (and the loss of draft pick) worth the potential to be gained in playoff revenue shares and some jersey sales — not to mention keeping him from signing with a rival team?

The Rays probably already crunched those numbers, and then Sternberg clearly shut the door. Heck, he moved the elephant in front of it. But at what point does the scale tip toward the Rays spending in a splashy way?

I don’t have the answer, but Snell’s comments are the right ones. Sternberg’s Feb 19 presser was all about the team staying competitive enough, about aiming for 90-wins instead of being obsessed with the playoffs as the measure of success. That’s probably because success in business is measured by profitability more than trophies.

It’s a business decision to weigh the opportunity costs of funds and draft picks against a big name. It’s a business decision to diversify risk across many relievers instead of one closer. The Rays aren’t putting all their eggs in a Kimbrel-shaped basket.

But it’d sure be nice if they did.