Offseason Outlook: Tampa Bay Rays

The spectre of a David Price trade hangs over the Rays' offseason as the club considers whether or not to make a franchise-altering deal.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Contract Options

Free Agents

All signs point to David Price wearing a different uniform in 2014, so much so that even the left-hander himself is preparing for a trade.  Price is due for another raise in arbitration and for a team on a limited budget like Tampa Bay, the window may have closed on getting back to the World Series with Price in the rotation and pitching on a relatively inexpensive salary.  Two remaining years of control over one of the league's top pitchers is a valuable commodity, so the timing seems right for the Rays to move Price and once again reload with younger (and cheaper) future stars.

The good news for Rays fans is that the team has scored big in recent trades of star pitchers — Matt Garza to the Cubs in January 2011 and James Shields to the Royals last winter.  Those deals brought the likes of Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Sam Fuld, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay, and it's likely that Price would command an even larger haul of prospects than either Garza or Shields. Teams such as the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Rangers and more have been cited as possible landing spots in a Price deal, with Texas in particular has been linked to Price for over a year given their deep minor league system.

If Price stays, then he remains the anchor of an impressive rotation that also includes Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Archer and Jeremy Hellickson.  Jeff Niemann could also be in the mix if he's healthy, though MLBTR's Tim Dierkes doesn't believe the oft-injured righty will be tendered a contract.  The Rays have Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Alex Torres as minor league starting depth.  If Price is dealt, the Rays could add rotation depth in the form of a low-cost veteran with upside, a la the Roberto Hernandez signing from last winter.

Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar are very likely to have their options picked up, so that will bring the Rays' payroll to a guaranteed $23.5MM for those two, Moore, Joel Peralta and Evan Longoria.  MLBTR's Matt Swartz projects the Rays will have to pay roughly $25.7MM to eight arbitration-eligible players (and maybe more if Niemann and/or Sam Fuld are tendered contracts), bringing the total to $49.2MM for 13 players.  Owner Stuart Sternberg has hinted that the team's continued attendance problems will impact the payroll, which stood at just under $62MM in 2013, so executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman will again have to deliver on a tight budget.

The payroll crunch makes it unlikely that the Rays will re-sign more than one or perhaps two of their free agents, and even then those players would have to be willing to come back at a discount.  Fernando Rodney could be willing to take such a deal (if Peralta's claims are true) but it seems more like the Rays' M.O. to pursue another low-cost relief arm rather than pay extra to keep one of their own.  The Rays can afford to be flexible with their bullpen situation as internal options like Peralta, Jake McGee or Wesley Wright could also step up to close games or be part of a committee.  MLBTR's Steve Adams predicts that Jesse Crain can find a one-year, $3.5MM deal in free agency — that's a bit pricey for the Rays, but if they liked Crain enough to acquire him last July even when he was injured, re-signing him isn't out of the question. 

The Rays are mostly set around the diamond with Longoria at third, Escobar at short, Zobrist at second, Myers in right and Desmond Jennings in center.  Jose Lobaton was a walkoff hero in Game Three of the ALDS and the switch-hitting catcher posted a decent .736 OPS against righty pitching during the regular season.  The Rays would be fine with Lobaton and a veteran backup (maybe a re-signed Jose Molina) handling the duties behind the plate, though they'll keep an eye out to see if a catching upgrade could be found.

David DeJesus' $6.5MM option seems too expensive to be picked up, leaving Tampa Bay with a hole in left field to go along with question marks at DH and first base.  The left-handed hitting Matt Joyce could combine with the right-handed hitting Guyer for a solid platoon in left.  Delmon Young wants to return and could be in the LF/DH platoon mix as well, as he could be re-signed at a limited price.

The Rays have struck gold with two of their three first base reclamation projects over the last three seasons, as James Loney and Casey Kotchman both performed above expectations while Carlos Pena struggled in 2012.  Tampa Bay will again look to score with a veteran with a good pedigree and perhaps is in need of a change in scenery.  Perhaps a slugger like Mark Reynolds could regain his stroke while only playing as part of a platoon, or a utilityman like Jeff Baker would be even more useful since he could back up multiple positions and provide a big bat against southpaws.

Though the Rays have these three key power positions up in the air, LF/1B/DH and even catcher or the rotation could all be addressed in a Price trade.  In an ideal world for Tampa Bay, they'd be able to sign Price to a multiyear extension — in the realistic/ideal world, the club would be able to free up $13MM in payroll space while moving Price for at least one or two players like Myers, a star prospect who quickly broke out in the majors and looks to be a lineup stalwart for years to come.

It could be argued that since the return on the Price trade will shape the rest of Tampa Bay's winter plans, such a deal could happen relatively early in the offseason, akin to how Shields was swapped just after the Winter Meetings in early December 2012.  Friedman isn't going to rush to make a move, however, since his organization's margin for error is so thin.  A contender may be looking to acquire Price so they can challenge for a World Series in 2014 and 2015; Friedman needs the return on the Price trade to keep the Rays afloat for championship runs for the rest of the decade.

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