Joe Henderson Columns
Upton's Rays days are likely numbered
TAMPA - Halfway through the season, the Tampa Bay Rays have remained contenders in the American League East even though they played a month without Evan Longoria and three months with a lineup that has more holes than Augusta National. Well done. But decision time is approaching. Starting Monday night at Tropicana Field, the Rays begin a stretch of 20 games against Cincinnati, St. Louis, Minnesota, the New York Yankees, and Boston. Throw in a 10-game road trip after that to close out July, mostly out west. This is from the Marquis de Selig school of scheduling.How they handle that gauntlet could set the Rays’ direction for this season and the next several to follow. The end of the long trip on July 31 at Seattle coincides with the non-waiver trade deadline. Everyone should know by then whether the Rays are keepers or sellers. Notice I didn’t say "buyers." The Rays won’t be making blockbuster deals at the deadline to import talent for the short term, even if it means making a serious run at a third division title in four seasons. It’s just not what they do, especially if it means parting with prospects. You’ll know the lads have decided they can remain in the race if they do nothing. But there is scuttlebutt that even as close to first place as they are, the Rays may be sellers. They do have some trinkets to offer, most notably B.J. Upton. There already are many reasons to think B.J.’s time here is coming to an end. He has shown no interest in doing a long-term deal and he is about to become overpriced anyway. Overpriced in Raysthink, that is. I’ve said before I like Upton, but it’s also a question of which wait lasts longer: the one for Godot, or the one where he fulfills the potential everyone believes is in that incredibly athletic body. He makes spectacular plays in the field and few players can match his speed. When he does get on, he is a stolen base waiting to happen. Then we see the batting average hovering around .220 and the on-base percentage that sits around .300. He also can drive fans nuts every time he takes a third strike down the middle (complete with a "what the …?" look at the umpire), and the cutoff man hasn’t been invented that he can’t miss. His throws from center field also have a tendency to be as off-target as one of my shanked tee shots. Upton is making $4.8 million this season, a figure that through arbitration could jump to $7 million in 2012 if the Rays don’t deal him. He could become a free agent after next season and the Rays almost certainly will wish him well and point Desmond Jennings in the direction of center field. Jennings sputtered in a short trial last season with the Rays but he is probably ready to play now. If he isn’t ready, Brandon Guyer is. Either way, Upton’s time here is probably measured in months, maybe weeks. My guess is the Rays would stay with Upton through the rest of this season if they’re still in the race, but if they reach the end of July and they’re only on the fringe of the playoff chase, executive vice president Andrew Friedman might turn Upton into prospects. If this were any other season, James Shields would be the hottest player on the market now. Contenders would stack prospects up on top of prospects to land a pitcher that could change the face of a pennant race. Besides that, Shields is making $4.25 million this year, a paltry sum for a front-line pitcher. After this season, the Rays hold club options on him for the next three years. The deal escalates to $12 million in 2014, but that’s still way below market value for an elite starter. That might matter more a year from now, depending how the season goes. We know David Price, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson aren’t going anywhere and Jeff Niemann is under their control for three more seasons. They also have Alex Cobb percolating in Durham and the roster at Double-A Montgomery is stocked with top pitching prospects that soon will be pounding on the door. The Rays’ way is to be proactive (see Garza, Matt), but that’s getting way ahead of things with Shields. With Upton though, not so much. You can feel the wind of change beginning to blow. That brings us back to where we came in on this column. They have surprised many pundits by remaining in contention after the great exodus in the winter of 2010, but they’re heading into the big-boy part of the schedule. If they emerge from this stretch still among the leaders in the playoff chase, they’ll see if this crew can make it the rest of the way home. If they falter, though, you can probably guess what’s coming next. Well … I mean, going.