The Rays will work within their budget in an attempt to boost their offense, but they don’t intend to sacrifice run prevention along the way.
- Ben Zobrist, UT IF: $12.78MM through 2013
- Evan Longoria, 3B: $13.5MM through 2013
- Wade Davis, SP: $11.6MM through 2014
Arbitration Eligible Players (estimated salaries)
- David Price, SP: $5.9MM
- Jeff Niemann, SP: $2.7MM
- Andy Sonnanstine, RP: $1.1MM (non-tender candidate)
- B.J. Upton, OF: $7MM
- J.P. Howell, RP: $1.4MM (non-tender candidate)
- Joel Peralta, RP: $1.8MM
- Kelly Shoppach, C: $3.2MM club option with a $300K buyout (no Elias ranking)
- Kyle Farnsworth, RP: $3.3MM club option with a $650K buyout (Type A)
- James Shields, SP: $7.5MM club option with a $2MM buyout (Type A)
Andrew Friedman realizes the Rays' offense could be better and he'd like to improve it. But it's not as simple as adding a couple of sluggers. If improving the offense means sacrificing pitching and defense, the Rays may well pass.
The Rays may hold onto their starting pitching depth instead of peddling arms for a power hitting first baseman or DH, even though such restraint would disappoint their possible trade partners. After the Rays were eliminated from the playoffs in early October, Friedman said starting pitching depth is "everything" for his team. His statement won’t prevent other clubs from calling about Tampa's starters, but the success of Matt Moore and Alex Cobb doesn't make James Shields, Jeff Niemann, David Price, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson expendable — far from it. Injuries can strike unexpectedly and the Rays can't afford elite free agent pitchers, so they depend on their ability to develop arms.
This doesn't mean they'll be as quiet on the trade market as they were this summer, however. They could be tempted by an offer for a starter, as they were last offseason when they sent Matt Garza to the Cubs. Perhaps B.J. Upton, the subject of countless trade rumors over the years, will finally be dealt. He boosted his trade value by posting a 1.038 OPS over the course of an impressive final month and would be sure to draw interest if he's available. If the Rays trade Upton, they could move Desmond Jennings to center field and start searching for a left fielder (assuming they view Sam Fuld as a fourth outfielder).
The Rays, who don't operate with a traditional set payroll, will probably exceed the $42MM they committed to the 2011 club. If they pick up the options for Shields and Farnsworth, as expected, and retain all arbitration eligible players other than non-tender candidates J.P. Howell and Andy Sonnanstine, they'll have committed roughly $44MM, not including minimum salary players. The Rays drew fewer fans than every American League team except the Athletics and owner Stuart Sternberg says the Rays' current stadium situation is "untenable as a model going forward," so it's hard to imagine much of a payroll boost.
Despite these fiscal restraints, this offseason could be less daunting than last winter. At least the Rays won't have to watch their division rivals snap up their best players, as they did a year ago when the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford and the Yankees picked up Rafael Soriano. Meanwhile, replacing Juan Cruz will seem easy after seeing six relievers depart last year. The Rays will add an reliever or two, but the emergence of Brandon Gomes and Jake McGee means Friedman won't face another bullpen overhaul.
As usual, the Rays will build through trades and modest free agent signings while ignoring the top free agent attractions. Their clearest positional weaknesses exist at first base, designated hitter and catcher. Rays backstops combined for a .607 OPS (27th in MLB), so there's room for improvement behind the plate. At $3.2MM, the team will likely decline Kelly Shoppach's option, but they like his defense enough that they could try to re-sign him. They could also pursue a trade for a catcher, such as Chris Iannetta, or hope Robinson Chirinos and Jose Lobaton can adjust to MLB pitching and produce the way they did in the minors. I wonder if the Rays could envision a situation where Jorge Posada joins them as a part-time catcher and designated hitter against right-handers (as Joel Sherman has suggested).
Free agents Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman could return in 2012. If Kotchman's strong all-around season prices him out of the Rays' budget, they may have to wait until late in the winter and hope to repeat their success with another low-risk deal. The Rays also figure to express interest in affordable first basemen and designated hitters in trade talks.
The Rays strike early when they're interested in extending a player. Price, however, is heading for unchartered territory in arbitration (along with Clayton Kershaw) and seems too expensive for the Rays to keep around long-term. They do have other extension candidates this offseason and while there's no rush to extend Hellickson or Jennings, the Rays are aggressive when it comes to locking up core players early in their careers. Agent Scott Boras would likely advise against a long-term deal for Jennings if it meant capping his earning potential and/or providing Tampa Bay with multiple team options.
Beating the payroll odds is becoming an artform for the low-budget Rays. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira will combine to out-earn the Tampa Bay roster on their own next year. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford won't be far behind. Yet the Rays have three postseason berths in the past four seasons — as many as the Yankees and one more than the Red Sox — despite the discrepancy. But unlike the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays have never won it all. To compete for a title again next year they'll need another successful offseason. Friedman and his front office must find a first baseman and a designated hitter, sort out their catching situation and tinker with the bullpen, all while weighing the risks and benefits of pulling the trigger on a trade.