No sooner was the ink dry on Cliff Lee's new contract with the Phillies than the drumbeat began: with the Yankees and Rangers still seeking pitching, surely one of them would find a way to land the Rays' Matt Garza.
No doubt both clubs placed calls to see what it would take to pry the 27-year-old right-hander away. But Lee's choice to spurn New York and Texas in favor of the National League should have the opposite effect in St. Petersburg. Rather than moving Garza and thinking about the future, Tampa Bay should be more motivated than ever to try to win in '11.
Sure, the Red Sox are restocked and likely the favorite to win it all next year. But without Lee, and perhaps without Andy Pettitte, the Yankees look vulnerable. There's still an opening, and the Rays need not to punt it.
Now, this much is worth noting: the Rays could trade Garza without punting 2011. They could move him for help to the 2011 roster, and that wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea. There's a ton of starting pitching depth here, and dealing from strength is what smart teams do.
But to flip Garza for prospects, as part of a reboot for 2012 or 2013, would be a mistake. This team can win in 2011.
The evidence would seem to suggest otherwise, of course. Tampa Bay lost or looks likely to lose several key cogs from the reigning American League East champions. Look closer, though, and you'll see that years of smart talent acquisition have put the Rays in a position to withstand the losses.
Jason Bartlett, traded to San Diego, is a nice player, but his 2009 is the exception. His 2007, 2008 and 2010 seasons tell the truth, and that's the story of a useful player but not an irreplaceable one. The man who will replace him, Reid Brignac, was about as effective a hitter in 2010, and he's likely to get better in his age-25 season.
Carlos Pena, another pillar of recent Rays success, will be missed in the clubhouse. On the field, though, Pena's 2010 production could scarcely be more replaceable. A first baseman who slugs .407 with a .325 on-base percentage is not helping a team with his bat. Pena was a popular figure among fans and teammates, but replacing his offense won't be a challenge.
The big one, of course, is Carl Crawford, and he'll be missed. But in Crawford's case, there's a replacement waiting in the wings. Prospect Desmond Jennings has excited scouts and prospect hounds for years, and Crawford's departure opens the door for Jennings to play. He won't be Crawford right away, or possibly ever. But he's better than having no plan at all to step in.
Then there's the bullpen, which is in the process of being gutted. But if there's one area of a team that a smart front office can upgrade on the cheap, it's a relief corps. And manager Joe Maddon has shown a deft touch at getting the most out of a 'pen. So while the names will be different, the effectiveness doesn't have to be.
All of which is to say, predictions of the Rays' demise in 2011 are extremely premature. The window has not closed, especially given the apparent vulnerability of the once seemingly invincible Yankees. The goal must still be to win in 2011, while keeping an eye on 2012 and beyond.
So if Tampa Bay can trade Garza for value in both the short and long term, it's not necessarily a bad move. But to do so as part of a strategy to look to the future at the expense of this year would be unwise. There's nothing at all wrong with having six quality starting pitchers. Hurlers get hurt, and even good ones can struggle.
Hold on to the assets, and see where it goes.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.