Martin Fennelly Columns
Benoit's exit just the beginning of the end for Rays
For those of you still sick to your stomachs from seeing that stiff Pat Burrell with champagne in his eyes after the World Series, we bring you more news: Mark down Joaquin Benoit as the first Ray out the door. It's the beginning of the beginning of the end for the bullpen. The lights-out setup man on the AL East champions apparently has jumped to Detroit for $16.5 million over three seasons. Imagine what soon-to-be former Rays closer Rafael Soriano will get. And there, up in the clouds, is what awaits soon-to-be former Rays best player ever, Carl Crawford.Will anyone ever pitch to Evan Longoria again? But, please, "Just Say No" to Tropi-Manny Field. That window has closed. That was for last season. Now it's that time of year for the Rays, that time of history, the carnage, to be followed by the Big Regroup for a postseason run in 2011. Run away! I'm seeing 82-80, starting pitching or no, and that might be optimistic. Still reverberating are the words of Manager Joe Maddon the day after the Texas Rangers ended Tampa Bay's season. The subject was the bullpen. Maddon said, well, if maybe we could keep Benoit ... They didn't keep Benoit. Why couldn't the Rays have paid $5 million per season for a guy who had a 1.34 ERA and 75 strikeouts in roughly 60 innings, holding batters to a .147 average? A closer for $5 million? That's cheaper than Soriano came in 2009. What are we talking about? This franchise isn't of the mind to even be able to keep Randy Choate. Benoit has helped set the bar for Soriano, who made more than $7 million last season and is due a massive raise. All the while we wait for Crawford to sign, presumably with the Angels, closer to his Arizona home, not to mention his $100-million-plus neighborhood. The guy could have made his own gold glove if he hadn't won that award, too. Maybe Crawford's departure will shake out as soon as the Yankees make one last trip to Arkansas to make one last pitch: "How does Cliff Lee Mound at Derek Jeter Field at Yankee Stadium sound?" Perhaps the exodus from Tampa won't be as great as once feared. Jason Bartlett's contract isn't burning up the Rays' wallet. And maybe another team might be unwilling to give up a first-round draft pick to sign set-up-the-setup guy Grant Balfour. And maybe good guy, bad average Carlos Pena wants to stay so much he'll take a major slice out of his 2009 $10-mliion salary and go for one with loads of incentives. Bartlett and Pena are just the kind of guys the Rays will need to stick with if owner Stu Sternberg is holding fast to his payroll slashing. Likewise B.J. Upton, though I'm convinced the guy needs a change of scenery to become what he can become. Right now, he's a hit-and-miss talent. Right now, Ben Zobrist is a 10-homer guy. Right now, Desmond Jennings, from what we saw in September, isn't beating the door down to be an everyday major-leaguer, much less a replacement for Crawford. No, things didn't quite break right for the Rays, even with a second division title in three seasons. Consider Giants catcher Buster Posey, alias National League Rookie of the Year, who the Rays passed on by selecting Tim Beckham first overall in the 2008 draft, despite a need at catcher. Beckham is struggling in the minors. The Rays are scheduled to pay dawn-of-the-dead catcher Kelly Shoppach $3 million next season, or about $2 million less than Benoit will make with the Tigers. Sigh. I still think the Rays need to deal a pitcher to get someone to protect Longoria now that Crawford is leaving. Matt Garza? James Shields? Or maybe the Rays could spend a few of the bucks they're saving by waving goodbye to Crawford and Soriano. That's a cool $17 million or so. Hello, Jim Thome. Yeah, right. Back to the starting pitchers. The Rays might need some of them, like Jake McGee and even Jeff Niemann, to round out what is soon to be a desperately depleted bullpen in 2010. Rays baseball ops chief Friedman retooled the pen brilliantly for 2010, but this is going to be tougher. The thought of dealing any starter, well, I bet Friedman remembers all too well the time a few seasons back when everybody crowed that the Rays might were filthy with outfielders, overloaded even. Yeah, those were the days. Joaquin Benoit has walked out the door. One down, how many more to go?