The Rays already have an excellent defense and (now that almost everyone is healthy) a deep rotation, so their main offseason goal will be to add enough bats to get back into the AL East hunt.
- Evan Longoria, 3B: $111.5MM through 2022 ($13MM club option for 2023)
- Chris Archer, SP: $23MM through 2019 (plus club options for 2020-21)
- James Loney, 1B: $8MM through 2016
- Matt Moore, SP: $7.5MM through 2016 (plus club options for 2017-19)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Jake McGee (4.127) – $4.7MM projected salary
- Logan Forsythe (4.113) – $3.3MM
- Desmond Jennings (4.101) – $3.1MM
- Rene Rivera (4.082) – $1.6MM
- Alex Cobb (4.061) – $4.0MM
- J.P. Arencibia (4.052) – $1.4MM
- Daniel Nava (4.045) – $1.9MM
- Drew Smyly (3.154) – $3.9MM
- Brandon Gomes (3.082) – $900K
- Brandon Guyer (3.066) – $1.3MM
- Erasmo Ramirez (2.158) – $2.8MM
- Non-tender candidates: Arencibia, Rivera, Gomes, Nava
Even following a 2014-15 offseason that saw them deal several veterans, the Rays were still a tough out last season, finishing with an 80-82 record. President of baseball operations Matthew Silverman is already on record as stating that after a busy year of both roster and front office shuffling, this winter “could be more of “a ’normal’ offseason during which we can focus all our efforts on advancing the organization.” For the Rays, of course, “normal” doesn’t include any expensive free agent signings. Owner Stuart Sternberg said it’s “not overly likely” that the club’s 2016 payroll will remain at the modest $75-$76MM range of the last two seasons, though this doesn’t necessarily mean Sternberg will order a particularly drastic cut.
Since roughly $29.78MM is already committed for four players next year, Silverman will have to be creative with his offseason maneuvers. This will include figuring out the Rays’ 11 arbitration-eligible players, one of the league’s biggest arb classes. MLBTR’s Matt Swartz figures the Rays will owe roughly $28.9MM in arbitration salaries if they tender everyone, which would bring their total to $58.68MM for 15 players.
Solid 2015 contributors like Logan Forsythe, Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Guyer will obviously be tendered contracts, as will Alex Cobb though he won’t be back from Tommy John surgery until late next season. One potential avenue for reducing the 2016 payroll would be to explore signing some of these players (Forsythe, Smyly, Ramirez or even Cobb on a somewhat unique deal given his health situation) to extensions. The Rays are no strangers to locking up young players early in their careers, and this strategy is likely to continue under Silverman as it did under Friedman.
The decision to tender Rene Rivera or J.P. Arencibia could determine the backup catcher’s job if the Rays are comfortable with Curt Casali getting most of the action. Rivera’s defense likely gives him the edge over Arencibia’s power, given the value that Tampa Bay places on pitch-framing. Of course, it’s also possible that the Rays could look to solidify things behind the plate by acquiring a new everyday catcher and using Casali as the backup.
Desmond Jennings and Jake McGee present a couple of interesting cases for the Rays. Jennings missed almost all of 2015 with knee injuries, so if the team isn’t sure if he’ll be a viable everyday answer on the Tropicana Field turf, the Rays could explore a trade. Left field could then be filled by a platoon of Guyer and a left-handed bat (perhaps a re-signed Grady Sizemore), or potentially another offseason acquisition.
McGee had some injuries as well last season but pitched brilliantly (2.41 ERA, 11.6 K/9, 6.00 K/BB rate over 37 1/3 IP) when healthy. With Brad Boxberger also coming off a strong season as closer, however, the Rays may feel McGee’s projected $4.7MM arbitration price tag is too costly. The Rays have enough of a history of successful reliever reclamation projects that they could choose to rebuild another arm rather than pay McGee. On the flip side, Silverman could look to gain cost-certainty over McGee by signing him to an extension and then team him with Boxberger to pursue a Royals-esque strategy of winning with defense and a lockdown bullpen.
That defense was aided by the emergence of Forsythe and Kevin Kiermaier as everyday players at second and center field, respectively. Forsythe broke out in his second year as a Ray, hitting .281/.359/.444 with 17 homers over 615 PA and also providing above-average glovework. Kiermaier had roughly a league-average year at the plate but still generated a whopping 5.5 fWAR thanks to his elite center field glove — his 40.7 UZR/150 and 42 Defensive Runs Saved were by far the highest of any player in baseball.
These two and Evan Longoria will be the locks in next year’s Rays lineup. Elsewhere around the diamond, Steven Souza will have the inside track on the right field job again, while James Loney is likely to remain at first base since Tampa Bay probably won’t find much trade interest in his $8MM salary and declining production. Richie Shaffer will likely get some at-bats spelling Loney against left-handed opponents, and Shaffer could also see some platoon action at DH.
Free agent John Jaso wouldn’t require too big of a contract to return as a part-time DH, though even something like a two-year/$14MM deal (or even a one-year/$6MM) could be too rich for the Rays’ taste. Since Jaso can only hit righties and can’t play the field, the Rays are probably more apt to pursue a player with greater versatility. A left-handed hitting veteran who can play part-time at both DH or either corner outfield spot would be ideal; essentially the Rays could use an upgraded version of David DeJesus, who filled a DH/LF role before being dealt to the Angels last summer.
Shortstop has been filled by veterans Yunel Escobar and Asdrubal Cabrera over the past two seasons, and Tampa Bay will have another vacancy at the position since Cabrera will look for a deal that’s beyond the Rays’ price range. The pickings are somewhat slim on the 2015-16 free agent shortstop market, though in my opinion, Alexei Ramirez stands out as a potential target that would fit the Rays’ M.O. of signing veterans looking to rebuild their value on a one-year deal. Ramirez may not be available on the open market, however, if the White Sox exercise their $10MM club option on his services on the heels of a nice second half.
The Rays probably aren’t looking for a shortstop on a multi-year commitment given that two of their top prospects (Daniel Robertson and Willy Adames) are both shortstops, and Robertson could potentially hit the majors by mid-to-late 2016. A platoon of Tim Beckham and Nick Franklin could fill the void at short until Robertson is ready, and it’s not inconceivable that either of those formerly highly-touted prospects could themselves break out.
Matt Moore had an overall shaky season in his return from Tommy John surgery, though the southpaw looked better over his last four starts of the year. If Moore and Smyly (who missed time with a minor tear in his labrum) are both healthy and productive, the Rays rotation could be one of the best in the game with those two left-handers, Jake Odorizzi and ace Chris Archer leading the way. As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times recently observed, the Rays will also have a load of fifth starter depth in the form of Ramirez, Matt Andriese, Alex Colome, Nate Karns, Cobb when he’s healthy and top prospect Blake Snell knocking on the door.
This type of pitching depth can be helpful to the Rays in two ways. Firstly, they could simply keep it and guard themselves against the kind of major injuries that befell Moore, Cobb or Smyly over the last two years. Along those same lines, the Rays could use an extra starter in a relief role to bolster the bullpen. Andriese and Colome were mostly used out of the pen in 2015, and it’s possible Cobb could return as a reliever in order to slowly ease him back after his surgery.
On the other hand, a starter could also be used as a trade chip. In less than a year running Tampa Bay’s front office, Silverman has already shown himself to be a very aggressive dealer in his efforts to restock the farm system, so if he makes a similar trade market splash when focused on the Major League roster, there’s no shortage of options. We can safely assume that Archer is staying put, though could pre-arb arms like Odorizzi or Ramirez be moved for a big return? Ramirez quietly posted a 2.95 ERA over his last 128 innings (22 starts) of 2015 and while that’s certainly promising, the Rays could also explore selling high.
Smyly or Moore could also be attractive commodities in potential deals if other teams are satisfied that both are healthy. Each left-hander is controllable — Smyly is in his second of four arbitration years and Moore is on an option-heavy contract that could run through 2019. Lower-level starters like Colome or Andriese could also be shopped for smaller parts.
The Rays hung in the Wild Card race until mid-August, and that was even after Kevin Jepsen was traded to Minnesota, a deal that reportedly cast a disappointed pall over the Tampa Bay clubhouse. As Silverman indicated, the front office’s attention will now be more firmly directed on the season at hand rather than just at the future. Don’t be surprised if the Rays are again involved in a plethora of deals and are getting a lot of playoff contender buzz come Spring Training.