Rays love Crawford but deep-pocketed Yankees are lurking

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Rays star Carl Crawford might as well have a pinstriped target on his back. The Yankees will have their hands full next winter, with their own big-time free-agents-to-be Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and manager Joe Girardi, but don't expect them to stop there. They not only have a seemingly limitless supply of spending money, but also know how to juggle several deca-million dollar contract negotiations simultaneously, and they will focus on Crawford. Just just about everyone but Crawford seems to know it.

When he is told that word has it the Yankees covet him, he seems unfazed. Maybe he's heard this before, maybe he doesn't care.

"I don't think about other teams,'' says the perpetually upbeat 28-year-old. "I'm only concerned with what goes on with the Rays.''

Still, as one competing executive says, "The Yankees absolutely love Crawford."

And what the Yankees love, they usually get.

Of course, the Rays love Crawford, too, and he loves them, as well as Florida, the sun and the fact they've turned into a contender before his very eyes. "I've been here since I was 17. This is all I know,'' he says.

Despite that, and that they are a worthy competitor in the stacked AL East, the Rays will need all the luck in the world to hold onto Crawford. Even more, they will need Crawford's charity, as there's no way this small-market, low-revenue team can pay the going rate for such an everyday free-agent star.

Crawford, who will make $10 million this season, is probably at least a $15-million-a-year player on the open market. But when that is mentioned to him, he just laughs and acts like he has never heard it. "That's a lot,'' he says. "That's way past where I make. That's a lot of money.''

Tampa Bay tried hard to lock him up this past offseason, and got nowhere slow. "That's something we spent a good amount of time on this winter and, obviously, wasn't something that came together quickly or easily," says Rays GM Andrew Friedman. One person familiar with their talks said the sides "never got close'' and were "too far apart to ever gain traction.''

The general view around baseball is that the Rays, a resourceful team but certainly far from a rich one, have very little chance to keep an everyday free-agent star such as Crawford. But Stuart Sternberg, a Brooklynite and the very down-to-Earth owner of the Rays, strongly suggests he isn't handing Crawford over to the Yankees --- or anyone else for that matter.

"We're going to do everything we can within out means to keep him a Ray,'' Sternberg tells SI.com.

"I'm a realist,'' Friedman adds. "It's definitely going to be difficult. But as Stu said, we'll do everything in our power to make it happen.''

Realistically, the Rays' best hope might be for the Yankees to concentrate on someone else. But that isn't very likely. The Yankees determined that they wanted to avoid a two-year deal for Johnny Damon in part because they like Crawford so much. And they will have to like their chances to get him.

The Yankees do like the Phillies' Jayson Werth, who's also going to be a free agent at year's end. Werth has more power, bats right-handed and is proven in right field, the tougher position to fill. But the Yankees still like Crawford better. Part of that comes from seeing him compete in the AL East, and most of it comes from seeing him thrive in the AL East. He's averaging .297 and 50 stolen bases over his eight-year career.

The Rays have a lot of positive elements as they endeavor to beat the Yankees and Red Sox on the field, as they did two years ago. They have a nice farm system, but their window to upend the sport's two biggest powers could be short, as star first baseman Carlos Pena will be a free agent, too.

"Carl should and will do whatever's in his best interest. But we are certain it won't affect the season,'' Sternberg said, adding, "Pena's a big part of the equation, too.''

Should Crawford leave, the Rays happen to have a very viable left field option for 2011 in top prospect Desmond Jennings, who's one of the very best prospects in one of the game's very best systems.

"Desmond has all the tools to be an impact player on both sides, Friedman says. But we're not looking at him as a replacement for Crawford. Ideally, he's someone to play alongside him.''

In the end, very few star players can turn down the bright lights, or the big bucks. And let's not forget that Crawford didn't take a deal this winter. But even if others say he is a goner, that he won't be able to resists the Yankee riches, he doesn't rule it out that he might stay a Ray.

"I don't see any reason why not,'' he says. "You never know how these things might work out.'' But in this one case, there's a very big favorite very early in the game.

The Twins showed signs they were a changed organization this winter when they ran their payroll up to close to the $100-million mark. This marked the first time in forever the Twins are paying about as much for players as the Cardinals and even the Dodgers. (In the case of L.A., that may have something to do with the fact that owner Frank McCourt and his wife are divorcing, but even so, it's amazing.)

But it's the Twins' $184-million, eight-year deal for hometown, home-grown star Joe Mauer that really stamps them as a serious player. For years the Twins relied on their superior scouting acumen, but they often seemed to be just one or two players short of stamping themselves a serious World Series contender over the past 15 or so years.

Now the Twins have awarded the fourth highest contract of alltime, behind the two Alex Rodriguez deals, for $252 million and $275 million respectively ($305 million if you count the home run plateaus) and the $189-million deal the Yankees gave to Derek Jeter. From the start, the Mark Teixeira contract (eight yeas, $180 million) appeared to be the fair comp, as Mauer is slightly younger at 26 and also probably slightly better but one who didn't have the benefit Teixeira had in free agency of a bidding war between the Red Sox and Yankees. Had Mauer played out the season in Minnesota, he surely would have eclipsed the $200-million mark by signing with either Boston (who was clamoring for him) or New York.

The Twins have announced themselves as a team that means business with this deal and the ones before it that made them a near-$100-million team. So now, with the news that star closer Joe Nathan is out for the year (he's having Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament), no one should be surprised if they played to win by trying to trade for Padres closer Heath Bell or another proven closer.

The Twins organization is filled with great scouts, but no one in Twins camp seems certain they have a viable closer already in camp. Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier and others appear to be the main candidates. But manager Ron Gardenhire admitted none of them can replace Nathan by himself. With nearly $100 million already committed, the smart thing would be to acquire a bona fide closer. So that's probably what the Twins will do.

• Joe Torre suspended talks for a contract extension for 2011. But longtime buddy Don Zimmer, for one, doesn't believe Torre will ever walk away. "Are you (kidding) me? He'll stay as long as they have him. He isn't going anywhere ... Unless he gets canned,'' Zimmer says.

• Aroldis Chapman has been brilliant (10 K's in seven innings) but the Reds are still considering beginning his year in the minors.

• If Phil Hughes performs well Monday, he should the No. 5 job with the Yankees. Joba Chamberlain is basically out of the rotation battle and will be in the bullpen.

• Surprising Rodrigo Lopez has a shot at winning the final spot in the Diamondbacks rotation.

• Mets manager Jerry Manuel would like top pitching prospect Jenrry Mejia in his bullpen, and there's a real debate going on in the Mets hierarchy about whether to keep Mejia. Impressive prospects Ike Davis and Fernando Martinez will start the year in the minors -- though F-Mart has re-established his value to the team with a big spring and Davis has bolstered his.

• Steady veteran Alex Cora will be the Mets' first-string shortstop if Jose Reyes isn't healthy enough to start the year. If that's the case, Ruben Tejada is likely to make the team as well.

• Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu called it "almost like a witch hunt'' after Milton Bradley was ejected twice in one week. He also said, "It's pretty blatant some guys have it out or him.'' Wakamatsu is only doing his job (yes, unfortunately his job includes sucking up to Bradley), but no one should blame anyone for "having it out'' for Bradley by this point. How about he just tries to behave?

• The Rays hope J.P. Howell (shoulder weakness) is back by late April.

• Tony La Russa takes even spring training seriously. "We don't like to practice losing,'' he said.

• Cardinals shortstop Brendan Ryan beat estimates by a week when he returned Saturday from right wrist surgery he had in early February.

• Matt Holliday, battling a strained ribcage, will play again today.

• The Rockies dodged a bullet when Huston Street's MRI on his shoulder came back clean. But they are still looking at outside bullpen options.

• Commissioner Bud Selig was smart to put Sandy Alderson on the case in the Dominican Republic, as Bill Madden of the New York Daily News pointed out. Too many shenanigans have been going on there for years.

• The snag in the Texas Rangers' sale talks appears fairly serious. Two sources say they believe the banks are looking for $50 million more. They are unlikely to cut Rangers owner Tom Hicks any slack, either, as he's been slow to pay back his debts. One possibility if this deal falls through might be to auction off the team.