By Jim Lighthall

The Rays are currently only 5-games back of the New York Yankees in the American League East race. By no means is it time to panic. With no clear-cut favorite in the division, the Rays could make up a lot of ground in a hurry with a hot month of June. But a lot of things are going to have to improve. Evan Longoria and Wil Myers (8 homeruns combined) will have to start hitting the ball out of the ballpark again and Ben Zobrist will need to contribute more than 9 RBI in a two-month window (to put that into perspective: ARod once had 7 RBI in a single inning in 2009). But mostly, the pitching must get better. I know that injuries have decimated the starting rotation so far – Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson should return by June, while Matt Moore is done for the season. The inability of the starters to go deep into games has put a tremendous burden on the bullpen. So let’s play the “What If” game. What if the Rays don’t get any better and slowly slide deeper and deeper into the basement of the AL East?

Stu Sternberg went all in for 2014. He shocked everyone and didn’t trade away ace lefty David Price. He signed Grant Balfour to close games. He re-signed first baseman James Loney to provide stability on offense and a steady glove on defense. The Opening Day payroll was nearly $80-million which is way more than management wants to pay. And with the third-worst attendance in Major League Baseball it appears that the extra money he spent isn’t translating into more butts in seats at the Trop.

The Rays front office is going to find themselves at a crossroads soon. The payroll is too high. Possibly missing the playoffs for the second time in three years. And, maybe more importantly, a farm system that’s depleted and in desperate need of young star power. So, is the window of opportunity to win a World Series that began in 2008 finally closing? Do they begin to auction off their best (and highest priced) pieces: Price, Longoria, Balfour?

Price will eventually be moved and Balfour most certainly won’t end his career in a Rays uniform. Which brings us to Evan Longoria. I want to see Evan Longoria retire a Ray as badly as everyone else and it seems nuts to even entertain the thought of moving him. But I don’t know if Longoria’s career path is headed toward that of Mike Schmidt or Ron Cey.

Longoria is in the prime of his career. He’s the face of the franchise. He’s underpaid ($7.5M this season) and signed through 2023. All tremendous reasons to keep him, but you have to give up quality to get quality. I’d hate to see this franchise be so worried about protecting its popularity that it never bites the bullet and rebuilds. The Chicago Cubs did it with Ryne Sandberg. The Minnesota Timberwolves did it with Kevin Garnett. Great players that could have been moved for a king’s ransom, but instead played on a lot of bad teams all for the sake of remaining the face of the franchise.

Look, it’s still plenty early enough that the Rays can get back in the playoff hunt. Maybe the big bats start delivering again and the pitching returns to dominance when it gets healthy. But if this season becomes a lost cause, then Andrew Friedman and Stu Sternberg might have to make some very unpopular decisions to ensure the future of the franchise.