BTF: No Crawford, no problem for Rays

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently announced that the team's payroll would drop in 2011, and that even shelling out $60 million is probably out of the question. With Tampa Bay's payroll above $70 million this upcoming season, it's clear that there are going to be significant changes to the roster. With Carl Crawford set to be a free agent after this season, he's as good as gone. And in looking at his potential replacement, the Rays won't miss him for long.

A fixture in left field for the better part of a decade in Tampa Bay, Crawford is one of the most dynamic players in baseball. However, the emergence of outfield prospect Desmond Jennings makes it all the more likely that Crawford will be stealing bases elsewhere in 2011.

A year ago, the primary question people asked of Jennings was whether his surgically repaired shoulder would hold up. This year, the question is just how fast the Rays need to clear a spot for him. Jennings hit a combined .318/.401/.487 and stole 52 bases for Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham last year, and Baseball America recently ranked him as the No. 6 best prospect in all of baseball.

Looking at ZiPS Projections for the next several years, it appears the Rays are not going to lose much with Jennings taking Crawford's place.

Desmond Jennings, Projected

Carl Crawford, Projected

Carl Crawford is still going to be an excellent player for a few years, but given the payroll constraints, this seems like one of the best places for the club to cut costs. Crawford will likely earn $10 million per season on his next contract, while Jennings will be making the league minimum in 2011 (roughly $400,000), and his cost will be under control for six seasons. Looking at the projections, even in 2011 the Rays will be getting 90 percent of Crawford's production at five percent of the price. That will give the team more flexibility to perhaps hang onto Carlos Pena, a player who has no obvious replacement on the farm, or to keep Jason Bartlett around until Tim Beckham (their top shortstop prospect) proves himself.

Dan Szymborski is the editor in chief of Baseball Think Factory.