Friday August 13th, 2010

Carl Crawford headlines this offseason's class of free-agent position players, but that doesn't mean opposing fans are showering him with warm greetings in order to entice him to join their team next year.

"No, they pretty much still me how much I [stink]," the Rays left fielder said with a laugh. "They're not taking it easy on me. It's even worse right now."

Tampa Bay is embroiled in a tense playoff race, trailing the Yankees by two games in the American League East and leading another division rival, the Red Sox, by four games in the wild card, so the cold receptions aren't unexpected, even if those two teams sit atop Crawford's list of most likely pursuers this winter.

Crawford has spent his entire nine-year career in Tampa Bay, during which time the Rays have risen from pretender to contender, but their window of opportunity to remain a threat in the AL East may be closing. They reached the World Series in 2008 and at the moment look destined to face the Yankees in this year's ALCS, but with Crawford and first baseman Carlos Peña entering free agency this offseason, it might be a year or two before the organization's stocked farm system can adequately replace them. For instance, the Rays have blue-chip outfield prospect Desmond Jennings waiting in the wings as Crawford's heir apparent, but he has no major-league experience.

A playoff appearance this season is no certainty, either. In the past week, the Rays placed young starters Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis on the disabled list with shoulder soreness, where they join Pena, who has a sprained right foot. Tampa Bay also dropped five straight games, two of which came while Crawford was resting some general aches and pains, and three others in which he went 1-for-13.

The last of those defeats came in a loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday in which the Rays were nearly no-hit for the fourth time in 13 months. "I don't really know what it is or why it keeps happening," says Crawford of the team's mysterious dry spells. "I just hope it doesn't happen anymore."

In what could be his swan song in Tampa Bay, Crawford's run-creating and run-preventing skills make him the club's most important player down the stretch. He made his fourth All-Star team this year, his first as a starter, and leads the Rays with a .297 average, which jumps to .386 with runners in scoring position, and tops the AL with seven triples while ranking second with 39 stolen bases. He also has a .351 on-base percentage and 12 home runs. Crawford, who turned 29 on Aug. 5, recently stole the 400th base and was one triple and three home runs shy of becoming the first player in baseball history with 100 home runs, 100 triples and 400 stolen bases before his 29th birthday.

His defense may be even more impressive. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Crawford leads all major-leaguers -- regardless of position -- by having saved 19.1 runs, nearly double the amount saved by second-place Tony Gwynn Jr., the Padres' center fielder who has saved 10.5 runs. According to, the player Crawford most closely compares to at this age is Roberto Clemente.

The only similarly talented position player to hit the free-agent market this offseason will be Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth, but Crawford will likely receive the better contract because he's two years younger than Werth, who turned 31 in May.

Crawford and his agent, Brian Peters, said in spring training that they weren't going to discuss an extension during the season to prevent it from becoming an on-field distraction.

"As I said early on in the year, we're not going to have those conversations during the season," Crawford. "When the season ends, we'll pick everything back up and see how it goes."

The Yankees have long been rumored to lust after Crawford. On his last trip to the Bronx, a reporter from New York approached him and asked about playing for the Yankees next season, a question to which Crawford demurred, noting how well incumbent left fielder Brett Gardner had played this season.

Crawford will have plenty of other suitors. The Red Sox are always players for the biggest names, and a report on Wednesday indicated that the Washington Nationals have "strong organizational interest" in signing him.

The Rays declined to comment on the matter Friday, but before the season, Tampa Bay general manager Andrew Friedman acknowledged to that re-signing Crawford would be "difficult," though he insisted, "We'll do everything in our power to make it happen.''

It seems unlikely the Rays will be able to match the dollar figures Crawford can command on the open market. The Rays already maintain a franchise record payroll of $72 million this year, roughly triple what the club spent as recently as 2007, making it difficult to fathom they could expand it far enough to retain Crawford, who is making $10 million this year and ought to receive $15 million per year or more.

Times were simpler when Crawford was about seven years old, and there was an easy answer for which team he wanted to play for. His uncle Jack played parts of three seasons in the Angels' system before returning to Crawford's hometown of Houston, where he continued to play in local leagues. Carl Crawford went to some of Jack's games and wanted to start playing baseball -- because of his uncle's red uniform.

"Basically I just got more interested in his uniform than anything," Crawford said. "I wanted to wear the same uniform that my uncle had on. It was red and it was those little stirrups that I really fell in love with."

Growing up, Crawford's top two sports were football -- he was a standout quarterback who got offered a scholarhsip to Nebraska -- and basketball, where he played point guard.

"At the time baseball wasn't really high on the priority list," he said. "I just loved to play it at the time, but I didn't really think I was going to be a baseball player."

He played Little League baseball with current Astros outfielders Michael Bourn and Jason Bourgeois and credits R.B.I. -- Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, a youth outreach program funded by Major League Baseball -- for providing a formative baseball experience as a teenager. Crawford's Houston team played in elite tournaments, and his trip to the R.B.I. World Series in Colorado was his first trip outside the state of Texas.

His uncle exposed him to baseball, and programs such as R.B.I. helped keep him interested, while many other African-American teenagers chose other sports. Now that Crawford is a major-league veteran, he's taking on a more public role in promoting the merits of baseball in inner cities.

"You're always going to have that allure of basketball and football because those are the sports most of the guys play -- that's what they're around most of the time and what most of their friends are playing," Crawford said. "In my case I just happened to have an uncle who was playing so I got a taste of it early. If I didn't have that, I probably wouldn't be playing baseball either.

"[Houston] is just football-dominated and basketball too. You have to find a way -- I don't really know what that way is -- but maybe it's [to] tell them about the salaries and maybe that'll make kids interested. We don't really like to talk about that, but that might help."

Given the contract Crawford will receive this winter, he's doing his part to help.

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