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Tampa gave up on Kazmir, but not on season

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 2, 2009

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As an old football coach once said, “I reserve the right to change my mind.’’ That is apparently what Rays owner Stuart Sternberg did.

On July 10, Sternberg said that even if attendance continued to stay below expectations, he wouldn’t cut the team’s $63 million payroll. In fact, he told Tampa reporters, “As long as we’re in the hunt, I don’t see us, because of financial reasons, pulling back from that. Clearly, though, it’s a multiyear process and the money doesn’t come out of thin air, and money spent this year and budgetary shortfalls from our end from a revenue standpoint lead toward future years being a little bit leaner. I won’t say a lot leaner, but certainly a little bit leaner, for starters.’’

In 63 home dates going into last night, the Rays averaged 24,169. They should surpass last season’s attendance of just over 1.8 million. But they are 12th in the American League in attendance, well below the league average of 28,873. And they didn’t seem to get much of the usual boost with the Red Sox in town last night, drawing a mere 17,692 with the kids back to school.

So the Rays dumped underachieving lefthander Scott Kazmir, who would have started last night, when they lost to the Red Sox, 8-4. Kazmir had raised his game in his last three starts, just in time to be dealt - along with the $22 million left on his contract - to the Angels.

The Rays insist that trading Kazmir doesn’t mean they’re waving the white flag.

“I was a little surprised they would trade him,’’ said David Ortiz. “I mean, he’s a good pitcher, a lefty. He got us a lot, but we got him, too.

“I don’t know, I guess I’m surprised, but nothing surprises me in this game anymore. I don’t think it means they’ve given up. They still play hard.’’

Most Red Sox players weren’t about to question the ownership decisions of an opponent, but they seemed pleased that Kazmir won’t be around.

Kazmir is 8-7 with a 3.59 ERA over his career against Boston, including 2-0 this year. At Fenway, he is 6-4 lifetime with a 3.05 ERA.

“I don’t get into that stuff,’’ said Dustin Pedroia. “What did he have - more than $20 million left on his contract? It’s really none of my business. I’m sure they had a reason for what they did.’’

They wanted to save money.

Kazmir was never an ace, and his durability issues and high pitch counts early in games simply didn’t match the contract he signed after a terrific 2007 season.

Rays general manager Andrew Friedman completed the deal yesterday when he received promising second baseman Sean Rodriguez, lefthanded pitcher Alex Torres, and third baseman Matt Sweeney. All in all, they made a very good deal.

The Rays keep stockpiling players for the future, though some of their fans feel they should be trying to win right now.

“We’ve responded well in the past when people have doubted us,’’ said Friedman. “With the talent we have in our clubhouse, there’s no doubt we’re going to have a strong surge and continue to play meaningful games and hopefully get into October. It has to be a collective effort.’’

If you watch manager Joe Maddon’s pregame ritual, it’s clear he won’t throw in the towel. Maddon speaks to all of the players who are in the starting lineup. He seems to have a pointer for each of them during batting practice.

The spirit in the Rays was apparent late last night as they rallied in the eighth inning, a sure sign that nobody has packed it in.

So why couldn’t they have waited until the end of the season to trade Kazmir?

“Even with Scott’s ability, we have pitching depth in our organization,’’ Friedman said. “Having that deep reservoir in our organization, and given baseball’s current structure, it’s not a luxury we can afford. We had to use that depth to address other areas and reallocate our resources. And we feel we have guys who are going to be big contributors.

“We feel we have young pitchers who are going to win games for us.’’

Rookie righty Jeff Niemann, who is out of options, has been Tampa Bay’s biggest winner. David Price’s talent is apparent. James Shields can be an ace. Matt Garza has ace stuff. Wade Davis will be the immediate beneficiary of Kazmir’s departure.

An AL general manager still questioned Tampa Bay’s motives, wondering if the Rays knew something about Kazmir’s health that scared them off.

“It doesn’t make sense,’’ said the GM. “You’re in a race. He’s a proven commodity against the Red Sox and Yankees and you get rid of him just before you’re about to play the Red Sox? No doubt they were going to try to get out from under that contract, because there’s no way Kazmir is worth the money they paid him.’’

Friedman noted, “A dollar for us is different than a dollar to the Yankees. In order to spin our competitive window, this was a move we needed to make.’’

In other words, the Rays felt they could maximize the return now rather than wait until the offseason and risk Kazmir not pitching as well the rest of the season. So they rolled the dice and will hope that Andy Sonnanstine and Davis can give them what Kazmir could, if not more.

So Sternberg changed his mind and traded one of his highest-paid players. Will it be the reason the Rays don’t make the postseason?

Was it the reason they lost last night, falling six games behind Boston in the wild-card race?

We’ll never know. Which is why, as controversial as it was for the Mets to ship Kazmir to Tampa for Victor Zambrano in a four-player trade July 30, 2004, the timing of the latest Kazmir deal also will be under scrutiny.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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