It's August 4th and the Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in baseball. After defeating the Twins last night, the Rays sit alone atop the American League East.
The Rays MVP to date? That would be Carl Crawford. The 29 year old outfielder is having a career year, hitting .309, with a career best .855 OPS and 38 stolen bases. Crawford is also one of the best defensive outfielders in all of baseball. So far this season, he's saved his team nearly 20 runs on defense alone.
The face of the Tampa Bay franchise over the past decade is also the teams biggest problem going forward. Crawford's contract expires at the end of this season. While Tampa Bay would certainly love to bring him back, losing superstars is just part of being a small market team. The Rays core will still be one of the best in baseball, led by budding superstar Evan Longoria, the best third baseman in the league right now, and a young, talented rotation.
But how will they replace their offensive catalyst?
We begin with an in-house candidate, a member of the Rays talented young core.
BJ Upton was the most heralded prospects in baseball five or so years ago. A short stop when drafted out of high school, his five-tool ability made him a potential superstar.
Upton's defensive deficiencies slowed his accent to the Major Leagues. But when he landed a full-time role for the first time in 2007, he looked like the player everyone thought he could be, hitting .300 with 24 homers, 22 steals, and a robust .386 OBP.
The next season, Upton's power dropped off - as did his batting average - but he continued to get on base and steal bases. Then, last season, the wheels came off. He hit just .241, and his OBP dropped to .313. The power was still missing. So far this season, he's hit just .232 with a .319 OBP.
Why include him in this list? For one, BJ is still just 25 years old. He's no longer a prospect, but he still has some time. He's under team control for a few more seasons, and the Rays would be wise not to give up on him.
I'm also confident that he has the ability. Anyone who, in their first two seasons, can get on base at a .380 clip, especially a guy with Upton's speed, has the skill set to be a true offensive catalyst. He's also a very good defensive outfielder, much like Crawford.
Upton is not a Crawford clone. He isn't really a contact hitter, but he also walks more often, and in my mind, has more offensive potential. He's not quite the defender Crawford is, and doesn't have Crawford's wheels. But he's got the talent to be a true catalyst, a guy who gets on base and makes things happen when he's there. Will he ever return to 2007-2008 form? I don't know. I think he has a chance though.
Of the five players listed, I'd put my money on Jennings.
The Rays top prospect, he entered the season as the #6 prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America. I've always seen Jennings as a hybrid of Crawford and Upton. Like Crawford, he makes good contact and can hit for a high average. Like Upton he can walk. Like Crawford, he has the speed to lead the league in stolen bases. Like Upton, he has the potential to develop some power. Like both Rays outfielders, he's a tremendous talent who can play good defense and contribute with the bat, and on the base paths.
Jennings was one of the minor league's best players last season, hitting .318 with a .401 OBP and 55 steals. His numbers have dropped off just a bit this season, but he's still hitting a respectable .280/.351/.411 with 27 steals on the season.
Jennings is likely to take Crawford's spot in the lineup next season. Whether he can fill those enormous shoes is yet to be determined.
Tim Beckham is pretty far away from the Major Leagues, and clearly is not an option for next season. But long term, Beckham has a chance to take over Crawford's role as a leadoff hitter and catalyst.
Like BJ Upton, Tim Beckham was a high first round (#1 overall, 2008) draft pick by the Tampa Bay Rays, a multi-tool player selected out of High School as a short stop. So far, things have not turned out as planed.
The biggest problem Beckham has faced is his defense. Last season, Beckham made an obscene 43 errors in the field. While has has cut down on his errors in 2010, his ability to stay at short in the long run is still very much in question. Like Upton, a chance of positions could be beneficial.
Beckham's offense has not been immune to struggles either. Last season, he hit for a respectable .275 average. Upon promotion in 2010 however, he's hit under .250. The good news? He's taking more walks. His OBP is actually higher this season than last, and he's on pace to steal ~10 more bases.
Beckham came into the season ranked as the 67th best prospect in baseball by BA - the Rays fourth best by most accounts. Beckham clearly has a ton of raw ability, and he's still a teenager.
If his bat develops, and he continues to improve his plate approach, Beckham could develop into a leadoff hitter, not quite a burner like Crawford, but capable of getting on base and stealing 30 bases a year. Who knows, maybe he'll even end up playing Crawford's position - left field - by the time he makes his Major League debut.
David DeJesus a catalyst? A leadoff hitter? Make that a left fielder.
The Rays are a small market team, but they are also a very competitive team right now. They may not want to rely too much on a rookie like Jennings, and with Upton's future still very much up in the air, DeJesus would be worth a look.
The Royals left fielder was hitting .318 with a .384 OBP on the season before injuring his thumb in late July. A popular trade deadline name, DeJesus' injury kept him in Kansas City. The team will likely exercise his six million dollar option for 2011 and try to move him before or during the season.
DeJesus isn't Carl Crawford. He doesn't steal bases, but he does hit for a decent average, get on base, and play a good left field. He also has the ability to move over to right field should the Rays need him too.
I like Desmond Jennings, I think the Rays do too. But if a guy like DeJesus is out there, and can be had at a reasonable price, Tampa Bay might want the insurance. A guy like DeJesus can stabilize just about any outfield.
The most "out there" name on this list, Gardner is under contract with the Yankees for quite a few more years. So why is he on this list? Let me explain.
It has long been rumored that Brian Cashman really, really likes Carl Crawford. The team's outfield situation seems pretty set right now, with Gardner in left, Granderson in center, and Swisher in right. But they will need some help in the starting rotation and in the bullpen.
If the Yankees were to go after Crawford, they could always move Gardner to center, and DH or trade Curtis Granderson. But Granderson has struggled a bit this year, and as good a player as he is, he would likely not return the same kind of value that, say, Brett Gardner would.
Meanwhile, if Crawford were to sign with New York, Gardner would become quite attractive to the Rays. After all, he's a lot like Crawford. A tremendous defensive outfielder with top line speed who can hit for a good average and get on base. He's young, and he's cheap. And with their pitching depth - and the Yankees lack of pitching depth - the two teams seem like a perfect fit.
Obviously, this trade is somewhere between "extremely unlikely" and "nuts." For one thing, the Yankees would want a pretty impressive player if they were giving up the talented young outfield. The Rays already have a more naturally gifted, though far less proven commodity in Desmond Jennings, and you can never have too much pitching. But from both teams points of view, this might make just a little bit of sense.