- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. (AP) - The Tampa Bay Rays meandered through a cluttered clubhouse, clearing out lockers and saying their goodbyes.

Carl Crawford likely did it for the final time at Tropicana Field on Wednesday, but he wasn’t ready to concede he’ll wind up in another uniform next season.

“I’ve always said that I’d like to stay here, that’s the first thing,” Crawford said about 15 hours after the AL East champions were bounced out of the playoffs by Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers. “Might not be that way, but I definitely would like to stay here.”

The four-time All-Star is the longest-tenured player in club history, as well as the franchise career leader in batting average, RBIs, hits, doubles, triples, runs scored and stolen basss.

He’s also likely to be one of the most attractive players available in free agency this winter and command a salary that the budget-conscious Rays can not afford to give one player.

Owner Stuart Sternberg hasn’t budged on his vow to trim the team’s $73 million payroll, and pushed through a group of reporters gathered around Crawford the previous night to tell the veteran of nine seasons: “Thank you for everything.”

Crawford earned $10 million this year while hitting .307 with 47 stolen bases and career bests of 19 homers, 90 RBIs and 110 runs scored. He batted .359 with runners in scoring postion _ second in the AL behind Josh Hamilton _ and generally is regarded as the best left fielder in baseball.

Fans, sensing he might have played his final home game, chanted his name when he took the field for the ninth inning of loss to Texas in Game 2 of the AL division series.

The send-off turned out to be premature when The Rays rallied to win Games 3 and 4 on the road to get back to Tropicana Field for a decisive fifth game, which the Rangers won 5-1.

The sellout crowd of 41,845 rose to its feet for his last at-bat Tuesday night and continued to applaud when he flew out to center field against Cliff Lee.

Money will be a major factor in where he winds up next season, although Crawford suggested he’ll consider some other things, too.

“That is a big part of everything, but when it comes down to it, you just want to go somewhere you’re comfortable,” he said. “Obviously the finanical part, you just want to be paid for what you do, I guess.”

Crawford is not the only key player who may not return next year.

All-Star closer Rafael Soriano and first baseman Carlos Pena will be free agents, as well most of a bullpen that was one of the keys to the Rays going a league-best 96-66 and winning the AL East for the second time in three years.

No one, especially manager Joe Maddon, is ready to declare the club’s window of opportunity for winning is closing fast.

One of baseball’s youngest and deepest pitching rotations, headed by 19-game winner David Price, could give the Rays a chance to be competitve for years to come.

Matt Garza, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and rookie Wade Davis teamed with Price to make Tampa Bay just the sixth team in major league history to feature five pitchers with at least 12 wins and 100 strikeouts in the same season.

There’s plenty of talent in the club’s minor league system, too, including outfielder Desmond Jennings and pitchers Jeremy Hellickson and Jake McGee, all of whom made their major league debuts this season and will be expected to compete for roster spots in spring training.

Maddon said it’s too early to speculate on what may or may not happen this winter, however he’s confident the Rays will continue to be successful.

“Having been a developmental guy for so long, I see this as beng extremely exciting,” Maddon said. “Hate losing people that you’d like to keep, no question. But the exciting component is having this young group come in that is very talented, and knowing that you can grow this group into something special. That’s how I look at it.”

Moving forward, Maddon expects pitching and defense to remain the heart of the team. Offensively, the Rays thrive on manufacturing runs with speed and timely hitting, which was missing in the playoff loss to Texas.

Rangers pitchers set a division series record with 55 strikeouts. Lee fanned a ALDS-record 21 and walked none in two victories, and the Rays scored just two runs in their three losses, all at home.

With a limted budget for free agency, it will be difficult to add any significant bats to the lineup this winter.

Maddon is good with that.

“When you win 96 games, and you score the third-most runs in the American League,” Maddon said, “without completing the sentence. There’s different ways to score runs, and we have proven that this year.”

The Rays hold a $4 million option on reliever Dan Wheeler. In addition to Soriano, three other key members of the bullpen, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour and Randy Choate, will be free agents.

“I really believe that no matter what, they’re going to have a lot of talent. I mean, the two guys that came up this year _ Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings _ the future is definitely bright, no question about that,” Wheeler said.

Balfour agreed, adding a mass exodus isn’t certain if Rays management decides to keep as much of the roster intact as possible.

“If they want them back, I’m sure there’s plenty of guys that would love to come back,” Balfour said. “It’s up to them.”

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