Key to Rays’ trade hopes hinge on payroll

The Rays remain a serious longshot to complete any of their fanciful trade pursuits.

But they sure are busy exploring possibilities.

In addition to pursuing Blue Jays right-hander Roy Halladay and Indians lefty Cliff Lee, the Rays are gauging the value of left-hander Scott Kazmir and other players, telling teams, “they are open to anything.”

Such a position does not necessarily mean that the Rays will follow through; the chances of them completing a blockbuster are quite slim.

But the Rays, who face payroll limitations while trying to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East, are forever trying to be proactive and creative.

Wide-ranging, ambitious discussions between clubs are not all that unusual in the days leading to the July 31 non-waiver deadline; the Rays also have inquired about Indians catcher Victor Martinez, as first reported by SI.com. But one rival general manager is all but dismissive of the Rays’ efforts, saying, “They’re shooting in the dark. I don’t think anything with them will really materialize at all.”

The Rays’ biggest problem is that they lack payroll flexibility — a major stumbling block toward the addition of Halladay or even Lee unless the team can unload the salary of a high-priced player such as Kazmir in a separate deal.

It’s worth investigating, at the very least.

Halladay has told several Tampa Bay players that he would waive his no-trade clause to play for the Rays, according to major-league sources.

The pitcher resides in Odessa, Fla., just north of the Tampa Bay area.

He has said he wants to play for a winner, and the Rays are the defending American League champions.

If only it were that simple.

The Rays, playing in the intensely competitive AL East, need to maximize their payroll more than perhaps any team in baseball, making it even more critical for them to keep their best prospects.

The Indians likely would want Class AAA right-hander Wade Davis in any deal for Lee, according to FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi.

The Jays, meanwhile, consider the Rays one of the most attractive suitors for Halladay, and are scouting Tampa Bay’s minor-league system, sources say.

But the issue for the Rays is money.

The team was over budget when it began the season with a $63.3 million payroll, the sixth-lowest in the majors. Owner Stuart Sternberg has said that he does not want to go higher. And the Rays are reluctant to trade young, affordable pitchers such as Davis.

Halladay, 32, is earning $14.25 million this season and $15.75 million next season. Lee, who turns 31 on Aug. 30, is earning $5.75 million this season with a $9 million club option for 2010.

It is not inconceivable that the Rays could trade one of their more expensive players to clear payroll; Kazmir, signed through 2011 at salaries of $6 million, $8 million and $11 million with a $13.5 million option for ’12, would be the most obvious possibility.

Teams routinely ask about All-Star left fielder Carl Crawford, who is a free agent after next season, when the Rays mention that they will consider all possibilities.

The chances of a Crawford trade are close to zero; the Rays wants to win this season, and there is virtually no scenario by which they could improve if they proceeded without Crawford.