There’s a new man in charge but the mantra remains the same: do more with less. The Rays will trot out the lowest payroll in the AL East once again and after a sub-.500 season Matt Silverman is charged with the task of getting them back to the playoffs.
- Evan Longoria, 3B: $122.5MM through 2022
- Chris Archer, SP: $24MM through 2019
- James Loney, 1B: $15MM through 2016
- Yunel Escobar, SS: $13MM through 2016
- Matt Moore, SP: $10.5MM through 2016
- Ryan Hanigan, C: $8MM through 2016
- Grant Balfour, RP: $7MM through 2015
- David DeJesus, OF: $6MM through 2015
- Jose Molina, C: $2.75MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Sean Rodriguez OF/IF (5.133): $2.0MM
- Matt Joyce, OF (5.123): $4.9MM
- Jeremy Hellickson, SP (4.042): $3.9MM
- Cesar Ramos (4.003): $ 1.3MM
- Jake McGee (3.127): $3.8MM
- Logan Forsythe (3.113): $1.2MM
- Desmond Jennings (3.101): $3.2MM
- Alex Cobb (3.061): $4.5MM
- Drew Smyly (2.154): $3.0MM
- Non-tender candidates: Rodriguez, Joyce
Apparently, the Rays’ shakeup will extend beyond the front office. Earlier today we learned that Joe Maddon has decided to opt out of his contract with the Rays. The 60-year-old was quick to tell the world that he wanted to stay in Tampa Bay after Andrew Friedman left to join the Dodgers, but upon learning that his contract contained a two-week opt-out window in the event that Friedman left the organization, he had a change of heart. Maddon is said to be seeking a five-year deal worth around $5MM annually, so it’s not surprising that Tampa shied away from that level of commitment. The Rays now have to add finding a skipper to their to-do list in the coming weeks and months.
After years of working in the Rays baseball ops department, Silverman is well-prepared for his new role. He’ll be joined by the recently promoted Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, both of whom have been named vice presidents of baseball operations. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. The Rays set a new franchise high with their $80MM+ payroll last season, but we shouldn’t expect to see that again. Overall spending is “clearly going to be lower,” owner Stuart Sternberg said in September. While Silverman doesn’t have to worry about carving out room for an arbitration raise for David Price or paying Heath Bell’s salary, it looks like he’ll be restricted in free agency given the long list of arbitration eligible players listed above.
With everyone under contract or team control, it would appear that the Rays more or less have their core in place for 2015. Still, they might try to be proactive about improving their offensive production with an emphasis on fixing their recent power outage. In 2014, the Rays hit a total of 117 home runs – their second-lowest total in franchise history – and they probably want to avoid a repeat.
When considering the club’s desire to rediscover the long ball and limited payroll, Matt Joyce appears to be a likely trade candidate. In fact, the 30-year-old even acknowledged at the end of the season that he could be changing addresses this winter. Joyce is projected to earn $4.9MM through arbitration and that $1.2MM pay bump doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Rays given Joyce’s declining power. The corner outfielder slashed .254/.349/.383 in 2014, a notable drop off from his All-Star campaign in 2011 where he posted a batting line of .277/.347/.478. If the Rays can unload Joyce’s salary for something useful in return, they might be able to carve out enough space to go after a difference-maker in free agency or trade for one. Inexpensive power options from around the league include Chris Carter, Brandon Moss, Evan Gattis, Dayan Viciedo, and Pedro Alvarez, though their asking prices and availability will vary. Yoenis Cespedes also fits the bill as a power bat, but he’s slated to earn $10.5MM in his walk year.
Alternatively, they could simply pocket that cash as a part of their plan to trim payroll and stick with what they have in-house. If Wil Myers rebounds as many expect him to, the trio of him, Kevin Kiermaier, and Desmond Jennings should be pretty productive. Trading Joyce seems even less painful when you also consider a supporting cast of Brandon Guyer and David DeJesus, part-time help from Ben Zobrist, and prospect Mikie Mahtook waiting in the wings.
The Rays could also tighten up their payroll by trading Zobrist and his $7.5MM salary. Of course, Silverman would want a massive return if he considered such a move and that asking price could be well beyond what another club would give up. The 33-year-old second baseman turned in 5.7 WAR last season, a rating that put him in the top 15 in the majors, and the Rays know how valuable he is. Still, his salary is nothing to sneeze at for the small market Rays and he’ll be a free agent after the coming season. On top of that, the free agent second base market is paper thin with options like Stephen Drew and Asdrubal Cabrera, if they’re not signed to play shortstop, at the top of the heap. Moving Zobrist would allow the Rays to meet their budgetary goals while also replenishing their once strong farm system. Entering this year, Baseball America (No. 20), Keith Law (No. 23), and Baseball Prospectus (No. 26) all put the Rays’ minor league talent near the bottom of the league. The Rays surely have an attachment to Zobrist on a personal and professional level, but as a club committed to player development, they have to get their farm system back on the right track in short order.
One has to imagine that the Rays would like to get out from under Jose Molina’s $2.75MM contract for 2015 and find a better backup to catcher Ryan Hanigan. Despite his experience behind the dish and solid pitch framing, his .178/.232/.188 makes him a less-than-desirable fill-in for the oft-injured Hanigan. If there’s a trade to be had here, it will probably require the Rays to pick up most of the money owed to Molina. Catcher Curt Casali doesn’t seem ready for the big show just yet, so if they move on from Molina, they’ll have to land a replacement.
It’s tough to gauge what the Rays’ new regime will want to do this offseason, but the starting rotation appears to be set with the likes of Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi. In the summertime, Matt Moore will join that group upon completing recovery from Tommy John surgery. In the interim, the Rays could plug Hellickson into the back of the rotation or call upon Alex Colome or Nate Karns. Hellickson, who made just 13 starts last season (4.52 ERA with 7.6 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9), could be seen by some as a trade candidate, but he probably won’t yield a great return at this time. If Hellickson can rebound and look a little more like the pitcher we saw in 2011-12, then he’ll make a deal much more worthwhile for the Rays. If the Rays choose to deal from their pitching surplus this winter it might make more sense to dangle Triple-A Durham notables like Enny Romero, Matt Andriese, and Mike Montgomery.
The Rays’ bullpen is currently slated to feature Brad Boxberger, Jake McGee, Grant Balfour, Kirby Yates, and Jeff Beliveau as well as right-hander Michael Kohn, who was signed to a major league deal just last week. Joel Peralta, who has a reasonable $2.5MM club option, will probably be back as well. Peralta’s 4.41 ERA looks pretty ugly, but his 3.11 xFIP is far more forgiving. And, while Balfour’s 2014 campaign was pretty bad, Boxberger and McGee project to be solid late-inning options. The Rays could beef up their ’pen with some of the low cost veteran arms that will be waiting around after the New Year and it’s conceivable that they could find a trade partner for Balfour, though it may require them to eat some of his salary.
The Rays’ flexibility is limited in more ways than one but they have shown year after year that they are unwilling to let their limitations hold them back.