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Crawford's playing like an MVP, but is this his last hurrah in Tampa?

He's a multi-talented left-handed hitter in his prime, an MVP candidate having the best year of his dynamic career. He's a vital young veteran surrounded by kids, a year and change away from free agency. His lower-revenue team sorely needs him, but the economic realities of the game are about to make a trade a real possibility, perhaps as soon as this offseason.

You guessed Joe Mauer, didn't you? That's OK, it wouldn't be the first time Carl Crawford has been overlooked, even on his own team.

A closer look at Crawford's contributions points to a player who deserves far more credit than he's received to date. The 28-year-old Texan has rolled up an impressive .316/.372/.466 line for the season. He's also perennially one of the best defenders at his position in the big leagues. His Ultimate Zone Rating of 8.2 per 150 games ranks third among left fielders this season. That's after saving 25.6 more runs per 150 games than the average left fielder last season, by far the best mark in baseball.

What truly sets Crawford apart, though, is his prolific -- and highly efficient -- basestealing. He's swiped 52 bases in 61 tries this season, good for a gaudy 85.2 percent success rate. In his first seven full big league seasons, Crawford has topped 50 steals five times and 40 steals six times. His 82.9 percent career success rate ranks him just below some all-time speed demons, including Tim Raines. Crawford is the perfect weapon for the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that's aggressive on the base paths but also run by a statistically inclined brain trust that treasures every out like it's the Hope Diamond.

Add up all of his talents and you have a player who deserves consideration for American League MVP honors this season. Crawford ranks sixth among AL position players with 4.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) level so far this season, according to statistical analysis Web site FanGraphs.com. In other words, putting Crawford on the field instead of the average waiver-wire player or Triple-A lifer has earned the team just over four wins so far this year, on pace for six wins for the entire 2009 campaign. He faces some stiff competition in that department, including marquee names like Mauer and Derek Jeter, as well as no fewer than three teammates in the top 13 in WAR: Evan Longoria and the hugely surprising double-play combination of Ben Zobrist and Jason Bartlett.

As is their wont, the Rays signed Crawford to a four-year deal in 2005, buying out his arbitration years to ensure cost certainty. (The team signed Longoria to a similar contract just six days into his major league career, a deal that now looks like the biggest bargain and shrewdest contract in the majors from a team perspective; top starter James Shields is also signed at a bargain-basement rate.) As is also their wont, Tampa Bay management tacked on two team option years at the end of Crawford's contract. The first of those options kicked in this season, at $8.5 million. The second is in 2010, when Crawford will make $10 million plus a few incentives if the Rays pick it up.

The going rate for each win that a player provides is just over $4.5 million, according to FanGraphs. At 4.1 WAR this season, that means Crawford's value to the Rays works out to $18.6 million. If he keeps performing the way he has this season, his worth to the Rays would work out to nearly $25 million. Even if you want to factor in some regression or possible injury for 2010, the projection remains the same: Crawford will probably be a major bargain next season.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple when you're a lower-revenue team trying to compete against teams with payrolls two, or even three times larger -- especially when those teams play in the same division. Even if Crawford finishes his season with a flourish, pushes the Rays back into the playoffs and wins AL MVP, the team will strongly consider trading him this offseason.

That may sound terribly sad and cruel, a reminder of how tough it is for teams to compete on relatively small major-league payrolls. Last week, SI's Joe Posnanski became the latest columnist to posit that the idea of Moneyball might already be antiquated, just a few years after the highly efficient but underfunded A's became the subject of a best-selling book and the inspiration for thousands of corporate board rooms. Where once Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta and the rest of Oakland's front office used superior decision making to beat richer rivals, today the Yankees, Red Sox and other members of baseball royalty can match any team data point for data point, scout for scout. With their superior resources, the Yankees, Red Sox and others have started paying well over slot values to acquire top talent in the amateur draft, while also shelling out big bucks on the international market. That eliminates one of the biggest advantages up-and-coming teams once possessed -- a greater emphasis on -- and greater return from -- their farm systems.

If any team can overcome these increasingly higher obstacles, though, it's the Rays. Thanks to a decade of futility, the Rays stockpiled top draft picks like B.J. Upton, David Price and Longoria. But plenty of other teams spent years dwelling near the basement without reaping the benefits -- the Pirates are about to set the all-time record in American team sports for consecutive losing seasons, and they don't appear much closer to contending today than they did after saying goodbye to Barry Bonds 17 years ago.

What has set the Rays apart has been their superior planning and decision making. When the team stockpiled a raft of toolsy outfielders but lacked pitching and defense, Tampa Bay flipped Delmon Young and two other players to the Twins for top-flight starter Matt Garza and Bartlett. When Upton proved to be an error machine as a middle infielder, the team turned him into a fly-chasing demon in center field. When the team sought under-the-radar upgrades, they did better than they could've ever imagined, grabbing Zobrist and star closer J.P. Howell, as well as solid complementary players like Willy Aybar, Gabe Gross and Randy Choate, for next to nothing. And when the Rays needed a first baseman in spring training 2007, they ... waived Carlos Pena, pulling him back just a few hours later after ticketed starter Greg Norton suffered an injury. No one ever said luck didn't help.

As the Rays head into the offseason, they'll face that tough decision with Crawford: trade him to add younger, cheaper assets at key positions, or hold him through 2010, then collect compensatory draft picks when he signs a highly lucrative deal in New York or Boston or Chicago or L.A. The Rays have Desmond Jennings, a 22-year-old speed demon and five-tool prospect, ready and waiting in Triple-A after tearing up Double-A pitching for most of the season. He recently started playing left field, after handling center field for much of his minor league career. Prospect mavens project Jennings to become a top-of-the-order mainstay and future star.

That's right. If the Rays swallow hard and trade an MVP candidate left fielder four months from now, they won't be rebuilding, or executing some nebulous five-year plan that never pans out. More likely, they'll remain contenders in 2010 and beyond. They'll just have the equivalent of Carl Crawford's little brother, and not Carl Crawford, patrolling left field.

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