The Rays’ primary focus early in the virtual Winter Meetings is to upgrade their catching corps, writes Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. The team has only one catcher on its 40-man roster at the moment — prospect Ronaldo Hernandez, who is not yet MLB-ready — and will need to add multiple options, be it via free agency or trade.
Since the season ended, the Rays have lost three catchers from their 40-man roster — albeit by their own choice. Mike Zunino’s 2021 option was declined, while Michael Perez was claimed off waivers by the Pirates. Kevan Smith, meanwhile, elected free agency after going unclaimed on waivers. Per Topkin, the Rays have considered reunions with both Zunino and Smith.
As is always the case with the Rays, the payroll is a vital consideration in any free-agent negotiations. They owe a combined $31.5MM to the quartet of Blake Snell, Kevin Kiermaier, Yoshi Tsutsugo and Brandon Lowe in 2021, and their arbitration class could check in around another $18MM or so. Adding in pre-arbitration players to round out the roster would add another $9MM, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars.
For most clubs, a payroll shy of $60MM would mean that even in a pandemic-impacted offseason there was some considerable maneuverability, but the Rays over the past five seasons have averaged about a $70.35MM Opening Day payroll. Absent gate revenue and, as importantly, revenue sharing in 2020, it’s not clear to what extent owner Stu Sternberg is willing to invest in the roster.
It’s little wonder, then, that Snell’s name has already come up in trade rumors. As Topkin points out, it won’t be a surprise if Kiermaier’s name is floated as well. Snell and Kiermaier are the team’s only two players making in excess of $10MM in 2021. Presumably, the Rays will be open to moving or even motivated to move Tsutsugo’s $7MM salary as well.
Whether the Rays move any salary or not, it’s unlikely that they’d add a particularly expensive option behind the dish. Tampa Bay isn’t going to land J.T. Realmuto, of course, and while second-tier options like James McCann would be more logical fits, it sounds as though McCann’s market is rather robust — which makes it hard to see the Rays as a primary player. Affordable options beyond the aforementioned Zunino would include Jason Castro, Alex Avila and recently non-tendered old friend Curt Casali.
The trade market ought to feature several other intriguing options. Willson Contreras’ name could emerge as a trade candidate with the Cubs looking to cut costs. The Indians are looking to slash payroll as well and have multiple veteran catchers. Francisco Mejia has slid down the depth chart in San Diego. The Blue Jays have a glut of young backstops on the 40-man roster. If the Rays were to move Snell, they could push for a young catcher to be a focal point of any return.
Suffice it to say, there are myriad approaches for the club to take, the extent of which will be somewhat dictated by moves made (or not made) elsewhere on the roster. Topkin adds that they’ll also be on the lookout for rotation depth with Charlie Morton now in Atlanta and the trio of Yonny Chirinos (Tommy John surgery), Jalen Beeks (Tommy John surgery) and Brendan McKay (shoulder surgery) all on the mend from major injuries. With presumably limited payroll flexibility and numerous needs to address, the Rays are in a tight spot, although that’s nothing new for GM Erik Neander and his front office.