Needs: First base, outfield, catcher, DH and maybe a closer.
Since 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the most successful teams in baseball but unfortunately that has never really translated into droves of people attending Rays’ games which would generate on book revenue to spend on payroll. Despite their success, their home attendance ranked among the worst in MLB. In fact, in 2013 they drew a home attendance average of 18,645 per game (source: ESPN). Yep, they out under-drew Miami and Houston.
This oddity is compounded by the fact that Tampa is part of the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Florida Metropolitan Statistical Area which has roughly 2.9 million residents, making it the second largest metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the state, and the fourth largest in the US Southeast behind only Miami, DC and Atlanta.
Simply put, if people do not come; then, arguably, a team cannot spend.
Front Office/GM & Mgr.
With this reality understood, I don’t see the Rays making any huge forays into the free agent market. However, I do expect the team to consider trading and entertaining offers for some of their players, e.g. David Price. A Price trade would be consistent with Executive VP of Baseball Operations/GM Andrew Friedman personnel strategy of the last few years and experts say that Price would net an even bigger return than what they got when they traded James Shields to KC last year. Outside of that potential move, Friedman will be shopping essentially at Filenes Basement instead of Saks 5th Avenue this year for some diamonds in the rough.
What Freidman does do, and does it very effectively, is find and sign under-valued veteran players to one year contracts. This serves three purposes: first, it minimizes the risk of signing the so-called under-valued player in case there the reason for the player being under-valued in the first place is actually what the player will return; second, it can serve as motivation for the player to excel beyond expectations in what will effectively be a contract year, and, third, it limits the money the Rays need to commit to payroll down the line in case they do wish to extend their payroll for a certain piece of the puzzle that fits a specific team need.
In addition, Friedman somehow always manages to restock the Rays’ bullpen which is continually being raided by teams that can “afford” to pay more than the Rays are willing to spend. Between finding the aforementioned veteran players and signing them to one year or short term deals and having a developing and effective farm system they usually find someone to insert into the pen that will at least let the team maintain some semblance of order and competiveness.
The upcoming hot stove season for the Rays will be a typical offseason of upheaval and uncertainty and Friedman, and his front office staff, will once again need to use some imaginative and creative wheeling and dealing to establish a roster that can compete within the AL East.
The team will have 13 potential free agents (four players do have team options that the Rays can exercise), and, 11 players who can go to arbitration if they and the Rays cannot come to agreeable contract terms. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg is on record that finishing last in attendance will force the team to adjust their budgetary concerns accordingly.
With an established five man rotation, their main concerns will be first base (Loney is almost sure to leave for better money elsewhere) outfield, catcher (especially defensively),designated hitter and maybe a closer since closer Fernando Rodney is a free agent and probably will be gone for greener money pastures.
The Rays offense wasn’t horrible this year, middle the pack in most categories, but it could use some improvement in the area of consistency.
The Rays have averaged 92 wins per season over the past six years with four playoff appearances but ususally most sportswriters predict the team to not evne be in contention for an entry in MLB’s post season tournament. But that’s exactly where the Rays usually are year after year with a roster that’s always put together with limited resources. A large reason for that success not only has to do with Freidman’s personnel creativity but also with Manager Joe Maddon’s steady demeanor as he guides his players through a very competitive AL East. Maddon is under contract until 2015 and there are no rumblings that anyone in the Rays front office is not satisfied with his management of the Rays. So, that is one isse the Rays do not need to deal with, i.e., acclimating a new manager with team personnel who are constantly being turnover.
As mentioned earlier, the main reason the Rays say they can’t boost payroll is that they have one of, if not the least, supportive fanbases in baseball and it’s hard to reinvest in the team when customers aren’t paying to see the product on the field.
With that in mind, chances of them pursuing any big-name free agents or acquiring any players with high salaries in a trade are minimal to non-existent. So, the spot light iwll be on them t ose ewhat creraive magic Friedman cna ocne agian conjure up fom his hotstove witch’s brew. And aside for mthe cosntant rumor of David Price possibly moving on in a deal that would net the team a bigger return than they got from Kansas City last offseason in the James Shields trade, expect a lot of bargain basement shopping by Friedman as he tries to find the next Fernando Rodney or James Loney.
So, as well as I can present it, here is most of what you need to know about the Tampa Bay Rays before Friedman and company get started doing the baseball front office voodoo that they do so well. (Thank you, Cole Porter… yes, it was he and not Hedley Lamarr who first uttered/wrote the “voodoo” line.)
Essentially, coming off the books due to free agency are RHP Jesse Crain ($4.3 million), RHP Roberto Hernandez ($3.35 million), INF Kelly Johnson ($2.45 million), 1B James Loney ($2 million), C Jose Molina ($1.8 million), RHP Fernando Rodney ($2 million), DH Luke Scott ($2.75 million), RHP Jamey Wright ($0.9 million), DH Delmon Young ($0.75 million), 2B/Ben Zobrist ($7 million and team option), OF David DeJesus ( $6.5 million and team option), RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo ($0.49 million and team option) and SS Yunel Escobar ($5 million and team option) for a total of $41.49 million.
The team options on Zobrist ($7 million) and Escobar ($5 million), are pretty much locks to be picked up. So that means the total coming off the books is now $29.49. Also, it is very probable that the Rays exercise DeJesus’ option and then offer him as trade bait for a combination of a major league ready position player and prospects. The Rays will not use their option on Oviedo who never fully recovered from arm surgery. Color Loney, Crain and Rodney, almost assuredly, gone. Expect the Rays to make them offers. However, I see some team offering more and they will leave. Molina, Wright and Young may, or may not, be offered deals but are relatively cheap. The most likely of that group to be offered a deal will be Molina, who at catcher can fill a need. Problem with Molina is that he is 38 and won’t be able to play a full season behind the plate. Most of the others could be gone.
The Rays then must make decisions on their arbitration eligible players who are OF Sam Fuld ($0.75 million), C Chris Gimenez ($0.48 million), RHP Jeremy Hellickson ($0.51 million), OF Matt Joyce ($2.45 million), C Jose Lobaton ($0.5 million), LHP Jake McGee ($0.51 million), RHP Jeff Niemann ($3 million), LHP David Price ($10.1 million), LHP Cesar Ramos ($0.5 million), INF/OF Sean Rodriguez ($1 million), LHP Wesley Wright ($1.03 million).
Before going further the David Price issue needs to be addressed and it should be noted that Price will be resigned either by mutal agreement or through arbitration, and then will be traded as long as the return is exceptional. His cost of $10 million plus will notably increase ($15 million in arbitration?) and, ultimately, will be too rich for Tampa’s blood. Plus, as noted above, they should receive back more than what they got when they traded James Shields to KC, probably at least a major league ready player and a very decent package of prospects. If, the Rays don’t get any offers that they feel is worth giving Price up in a trade they still have him locked in until after 2015 and can revisit the entire trade scenario all over again. However, the worst case situation may be that if the Rays are serious about offering up the pitcher and are not fighting for a playoff spot late in the 2014 season then they will have many buyers for a player of Price’s ilk.
Hellickson and Joyce did not actually do anything in 2013 that made Tampa think of them as key pieces for their on-field product so their raises will be minimal at best. And, Niemann missed the whole season after opting for shoulder surgery so his raise, if one is forthcoming, should also be minimal. Niemann has said he is ahead of schedule in his recovery process and should be ready to go for spring training.
Fuld, Ramos and Rodriguez may want more than the Rays are willing to tender and could be gone. Wright and Gimenez may not even receive offers.
One thing that the Rays do have is a decent starting rotation, which right now stands as Price, Roberto Hernandez, Mat Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb and maybe Niemann in the mix. And that means someone could be expendable but I am a firm believer in the baseball adage that you can never have too much pitching. But, then again if it’s Price who gets moved and they get their price (ok, bad pun) in return then the rotation could possibly still be a factor for them in the as far as contending in the AL East for 2014.
Of the players the Rays have that will not be moving: Wil Myers did very well after he was called up to the major league roster and inserted into the Rays lineup and the Rays like his overall offensive production as well as his ability to run the bases intelligently. The Rays do feel he needs to tweak his defensive technique but that will probably not be that big an issue going forward and will just be a part of his major league learning curve. Simply put, he is presently a cheap and major league ready player for the Rays.
Evan Longoria played in a career-high 160 of the 163 regular-season. He has had some injury issues so far during his major league career so that was a good sign and it appears that the hamstring surgery he had last year was very effective.
And if that be so, then Rays have him at a very team favorable contract of $7.5 million for 2014. That number does begin to move upward starting in 2015: 2015 $11M club option; 2016 $11.5M club option ; 2017 $13M; 2018 $13.5M; 2019 $14.5M; 2020 $15M; 2021 $18.5M; 2022 $19.5M; 2023 $13M club option ($5M buyout).
Pitcher Jamey Wright (18 year career) still wants to play and he would like to stay with the Rays. But, that may not happen unless someone gets moved. And, this is the reason why Price is going to be a big factor down the line because if, or should I say when, he gets traded then it opens up, and changes, the possibilities for a lot of players and, consequently, who the Rays will be interested in offering contracts.
Matt Joyce is from Tampa and wants to stay but he also has said he needs to play on a regular basis in order to improve his game. He is probably gone.
Designated hitter and free agent Luke Scott’s two season ride with the Rays was, in a word, disappointing and the Rays probably won’t make him an offer.
Pitcher Juan Carlos Oviedo (Tommy John surgery in September 2012) never recovered from Tommy John surgery (2012) but he was performing in the instructional league and the Rays will base their assessment on what they saw there and their medical staff reports.
As mentioned previously, DeJesus’ $6.5 million club option should be small enough even for the Rays to pick up his option but they still may do it with the express intention of moving him for prospects or players earning a lot less and with pre-arbitration years left to spend.
Including their club options that are likely to be excercised, the Rays have $23.5 million committed to five players and possibly another $30 million to the eight arbitration-eligible players expected to be tendered contracts plus othe smaller contracts, insurance and various other MLB required personnel expenses.
All this amounts to the Rays having about $60 million going towards payroll, which is just $2 million under the team’s 2013 Opening Day payroll, before they begin filling out their roster with bargain basement additions. So, it may not be a matter if they can move Price and DeJesus, it may be a matter of that they need to move Price and DeJesus to fix holes in their lineup and stay within budget.
Filling in the holes
On what will be a very limited budget the Rays need a replacement for free-agent first baseman James Loney with catcher and bullpen help also needed. Plus, if they move DeJesus or some other outfielder then they will need to fill that position.
Jose Lobaton started 76 games at catcher in 2013 and has a decent bat but as a defensive catcher he had trouble holding base runners from stealing, 14% throw ’em out rate. Veteran Jose Molina, who is very decent at controlling men from stealing, is catcher-old at 38 and while he could be brought back at a reasonable cost he probably won’t start but 80 to 90 games. Lobaton will probably be considered expendable and the Rays will go for an upgrade even if it’s a time share situation at the position.
Closer Fernando Rodney, (1.91 ERA, 10.1 K/9 and 85 saves) who did well the past two seasons, is going to go where the bigger money is. His potential replacement, Craig, will in all likelihood also leave for more money elsewhere.
The Rays have Joel Peralta (3.41 ERA, 9.3 K/9, 41 holds) and lefties Jake McGee (4.02 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 27 holds) and Alex Torres (1.71 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 5 holds) waiting in the wings but if one of these guys claims the closer role then the Rays will still need another setup guy to bolster the pen.
However, I do think they try to find a closer who is need of rehabbing his closer image.
As for the DH position, the team has several outfielders currently in the mix, including David DeJesus if (when?) his option is a done deal so the team will have excess bats to fill the DH role but if a trade is executed then the need will arise to fill that potential hole, also.
So who to target?
Catcher: Geovany Soto, (C/Padres) only had 71 at-bats during the second half of the season but he did have 23 hits, including five homers and six doubles. So he is capable of power. He also threw out 29 percent of attempted base stealers on the year which is still a big improvement over Lobaton. But there was a reason he was a part-time player. The year and a half prior to those 71 ABs he struggled at the plate, .198 for all of 2012 and .189 in 2013 before the 71 ABs. With that in mind he will very likely be a cost efficient signing who is looking for a starting job and he and the Rays could be a match.
Also, in the Yankees’ analysis that I recently put up, I opined that the Yanks would do well to consider Ryan Hanigan (Reds) for their catcher. I make the same suggestion for the Rays. The guy is an excellent catcher who only hit .198 as a part time player in 2013 but for his 7 year career has a lifetime BA of .268. The 2013 BA could be thrown out as an aberration. At the worst Hanigan could timeshare the Rays’ catcher role with Molina. He will probably cost more than Soto but if he doesn’t find many suitors and the Rays can promise him more than his usual 200 to 300 at bats per season that he usually gets in a parttime role then he might sign for around $5 million or even less. If, Dioner Navarro (Cubs) doesn’t get many teams nibbling could also be another cheap possibilty as he put up 13 dingers in 240 ABs with a .300 neighborhood BA.
First base: Michael Morse had an injury filled 2013 season and his offensive numbers arguably suffered, in part at least, due to those injuries. The Rays have a history of picking up players who have been labeled as “has-beens” and suddenly have resurgence once they land in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform. Morse is only 31 and just three years ago had 31 HRs and 95 RBIs. He will be looking for chance to reignite his career and Tampa may be just the place he needs to get to try and show team what he has left in the tank.
Mark Reynolds in the last two years, as a first basemen, has 32 homers and 100 RBI in 574 at-bats. And he ain’t too bad with the mitt, either. For some reason when teams put him at third base he simply sucks both offensively and defensively. He will be a cheap option to play first and the Rays have Longoria ensconced at third so that takes care of any chance Reynolds appears at third… as long as Longoria avoids any injuries. He is just 30 years old and is another player who may have few suitors; is looking to jumpstart/showcase his skills and will come relatively cheap.
The Rays should also kick the tires on Kevin Youklis. After signing for about $12 million with Yankees he had a weak bat and injuries until he was disabled for the year. He just may need someplace to go where he can prove he can be an ever day player who can still hit and just might be willing to drop his asking price for that chance. He is 34 years old and not that far removed from being a player who could hit 20 HRs, drive in at least 80 and bat between .280 to .300.
Lyle Overbay is also a possibility at first. He would definitely come cheap, under $2 million, and, just might still have something left in the tank at 36. He would at least be worth a spring training invite.
The Rays could also kick the tires on Travis Hafner (36 ) and Lance Berkman (37).
Outfield/Designated hitter: Some say signing Raul Ibañez would likely require the team to stretch their budget some, because he had a decent 2013 season offensively. But a close look at how he compiled those numbers will show he was hot early and cold late. He is also 41. Those two pieces of information together make me think he won’t be in big demand this winter and if the Rays are willing to wait he may fall into their lap for a decent price. I’m just not sure if he will really be worth signing in the long run but, again, he is just the type of player the Rays will take a flyer on and hope for the best.
The Rays could also kick the tires on Franklin Gutierrez who had an injury filled 2013 for Seattle and might be looking for a team willing to take a flyer on him. If he doesn’t receive many offers then he may be willing to sign for one year and essentially play for the Rays in what would be a contract drive year showcase.
And, Nate McLouth should be looking for some place to land and not that long ago he was powering up close to 2o HRs or more. And, forget about his 2008 season when he popped 46 because that was an aberration and simply will not happen again. I suspect he either got real damn lucky or had some help along the way during that year. Nuff said on that issue.
Relief pitcher/closer: Frank Francisco may be just what the doctor order for the Rays because if there is a closer on the market who needs to reestablish his marketability, it’s him. And the Rays, for some reason, have a history of getting relievers back to being good at what they do… stop hitters late in games. He was never great in the closer role but he was never terrible, either and Tampa just might provide him the springboard he needs to showcase his abilities.
And, if ever anyone fit the mold for needing a chance to show he can perform in the Bigs and would probably come very cheap then its the soon to be ex-Yankee Joba Chamberlain.
Trade possibilities: As mentioned earlier it is probable that someone gets traded with Price, DeJesus and Joyce being the prime candidates for that possibility. But if the Rays’ wants for Price are not met then he could stay with the Rays for 2014 and the Rays could turn to moving starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, who is a first time eligible arbitration player but who also did not have a real good season in 2013 for the Rays. At 26 he could just need a change of scenery and go to a team that has a good offense to keep him in games more often when he gives up an early run or two. A team like the Yankees, who need starters, just might give up one or two of their bullpen pitchers who have arbritration free years left to serve and would not make much more than the major league minimum.
Players that the Rays could target in trades are Yasmani Grandal (C/Padres) who is (10 coming off a season-ending knee injury as well as 50-game suspension for a positive testosterone test. His value is low and could be gotten with some prospects for a relative pittance.
Ike Davis (1B/Mets) finished 2013 on a strong note but has had a bad habit of starting his last two years very slowly. The Mets probably would jump at a chance to dump him and get something, anything, in return.
Kelvin Herrera (RP/Royals) is a 23-year-old that has a high-90s fastball and changeup. And after a year where he was up and down he just might be expendable in the Royals mindset for the right deal, especially since KC has 27 year old Greg Holland as their closer. Consider that in 58 innings Herrera struck out 74. So the realization is that he has closer type stuff but it needs to be harnessed. He also gave up nine dingers and 25 earned runs in those 58 innings.
This is what I see as a fair appraisal of where Tampa Bay is presently and how they might go about putting a 2014 roster together that can be competitive in the AL east, on a very limited budget.
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