October 2, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher James Shields (33) is congratulated by third baseman Evan Longoria (3) against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Baltimore Orioles defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Will a Former Tampa Bay Rays Star Ever Come Home?

In the past few days, you probably heard about a certain basketball player returning to his previous team to try to help them win a championship. It made me think of a legitimate question regarding the Tampa Bay Rays–and to prove that this is an actual topic worth discussing and not just a big to get some views, I won’t mention the name of that particular basketball player or his team at all in this entire article. The question is this: will we ever see a former Rays star return to finish his career with the team?

The Rays did have one player come back this season, Grant Balfour, but we know how badly that signing went, and he wasn’t a star to begin with. The type of players that would fit the mold that we are talking about would be Carl Crawford, James Shields, Matt Garza, and Scott Kazmir. Unfortunately, David Price and maybe even Ben Zobrist will be joining that group soon as well. Everyone but Kazmir among those six players left or will leave for financial reasons, not because they didn’t think the Rays could win the World Series. Nevertheless, the first four players’ time in Tampa Bay seems like a distant memory to us as they make a combined $53.25 million this season, just below the Rays’ entire 2013 payroll. Given the way that long-term contracts are given out in baseball–and how difficult it would be for the Rays to bid on a guy like Kazmir if he hits free agency after 2015 while still pitching well–we may never see the Rays bring any of these stars back in their primes like we are seeing with that player in Cleveland. However, later in their careers could be another story entirely.

We saw at the beginning of the Tampa Bay Rays’ existence as a franchise how several players from Tampa finished their career in a Devil Rays uniform. Fans at the Trop got to see Fred McGriff enjoy a late-career resurgence, Wade Boggs deliver hit number 3000, and Tino Martinez come through with his best season since the New York Yankees’ record-setting 1998 campaign. For the next generation of players nearing the end, it is unrealistic to expect that happening again. The Rays are a contending team season after season, and they can’t let every Tampa native come back, like we saw when they rebuffed Gary Sheffield following the 2009 season. Before long, however, the Rays franchise will have some history of its own, and that may view things differently by then.

Carl Crawford is currently being relegated to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bench. If the Dodgers ever buy him out of his contract, could Crawford say that if he is going to be a backup outfielder, he would rather do so in Tampa Bay rather than anywhere else? After their next contracts, Shields and Price will be in their late-30′s. Could we see one of them return to Tampa Bay for a final season to continue the mentoring process for the Rays’ young pitchers that they started so well? Then, there is someone like B.J. Upton, whose stint with the Atlanta Braves has been a disaster. If the Braves ever let him go, could he say that he wants to head back to Tampa Bay to try to recapture his previous glory? Not one of those questions is easy to answer, but we have to imagine that at least one player will decide to return to Tampa Bay.

The Rays are not going to start bidding to bring their former stars back on multi-year deals, but it is realistic to say that they will find a way to let some of their former stars come home as their ends near. When the first generation of the Tampa Bay Rays as a contending team finishes off their careers, expect to see some familiar faces in Rays uniforms and a few moments that will let fans feel at least a fraction of the satisfaction that Cleveland fans are feeling right now.

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