Even as rumors regarding the possibility of Freddie Freeman leaving the Braves have increased since the beginning of the offseason, big-market clubs with deep pockets — Yankees, Dodgers, Blue Jays — have been viewed as the primary threats to lure him away. However, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reports that the Rays not only showed interest in Freeman but made him an offer prior to commissioner Rob Manfred’s implementation of the current lockout.
It’s surprising to hear of the Rays even making any degree of play for a free agent of Freeman’s caliber, and many fans will surely poke fun and suggest comically small numbers from Tampa Bay. However, it’s at least worth breaking down the possibility, because when looking ahead at the Rays’ long-term payroll ledger, a massive commitment to Freeman might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.
The 2022 Rays are currently projected by Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez for an $83MM payroll. They’re also expected to field offers for veterans like Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, among others, following the lockout, which could drop that number back below the team’s $77MM Opening Day record. The mere mention of “franchise record payrolls” in the $77-83MM range serves to underscore just why fans would mock the notion of a Rays/Freeman match, but look ahead to the following season and it becomes easier to envision.
Beginning in 2023, the Rays only have three contracts on the books. Second baseman/outfielder Brandon Lowe will earn $5.25MM, lefty Brooks Raley is guaranteed $4.5MM, and burgeoning star Wander Franco is owed $2MM. The combined $11.75MM does not account for arbitration-eligible players, and the Rays do have their fair share of names who could elevate the total payroll.
Glasnow, projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $5.8MM in 2021, will repeat that salary in 2022 if he doesn’t pitch this year while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Southpaw Ryan Yarbrough will be in line for a decent raise on top of this year’s $4.4MM projection. If he struggles in 2022, he’ll be a non-tender candidate. If he rebounds from an ugly 2021, he could emerge as a trade candidate, given the subsequent raise and the Rays’ considerable pitching depth. Meadows will be due a solid pay bump over this year’s $4.3MM projection, but again, he’s already seen as a trade candidate. Margot is a free agent after the 2022 season.
Beyond that group, the Rays’ arbitration commitments should generally be modest. Yonny Chirinos is projected at $1.2MM this season and will earn a raise depending on how well he rebounds from 2020 Tommy John surgery. Backup catcher Francisco Mejia will be owed a raise, but he’s only projected at $1.5MM himself this year. Ji-Man Choi will be in line for one final bump over this coming year’s $3.2MM salary, but he could very well be moved if the Rays pulled off a shocker and signed Freeman.
In other words: the Rays may have an enormous arbitration class in 2022, but that’s not likely to be the case in 2023. Trades, non-tenders and free agency will subtract from the current group, and the only players set to reach arbitration in ’23 are relievers Pete Fairbanks, Colin Poche, Ryan Thompson and JT Chargois. Notable names like Randy Arozarena, Drew Rasmussen and Luis Patino are on track to hit arbitration in 2024, but at that point the top end of the arb class will have thinned out.
The conventional wisdom behind a small-market club like Tampa Bay being unable to “afford” a mega-deal for someone of Freeman’s caliber is that it’d restrict them from making further additions. Tying up such a large percentage of team payroll in a single player can obviously be hazardous. However, the Rays’ next nucleus already appears more or less in place and isn’t likely to be expensive anytime soon. Franco signed an 11-year, $182MM contract extension and won’t see his salary reach peak levels until 2028 — seven years from now (and, one year shorter than the six years reportedly sought by Freeman).
The Rays’ rotation was something of a patchwork group in 2021, but looking ahead they’re hopeful that a combination of Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz and Patino can lead the charge. McClanahan and Baz won’t reach arbitration until 2025. Tampa Bay has several other high-end pitching prospects coming: Taj Bradley, Seth Johnson and Cole Wilcox among them. The organization likely still has high hopes for oft-injured former top pick Brendan McKay as well.
Looking up and down the lineup, Franco has shortstop locked down, and Brandon Lowe is on a team-friendly deal of his own at second base. Lowe is earning $4MM in 2022, $5.25MM in 2023 and $8.75MM in 2024. The Rays hold club options of $10.5MM and $11.5MM thereafter. If at any point the team believes Lowe’s contract to be unwieldy, he could be flipped in a trade, with top prospect Vidal Brujan stepping up at second base. Brujan could factor into the infield or outfield mix at other positions before then, and Taylor Walls gives Tampa Bay another solid, MLB-ready infield prospect to consider. Top outfield prospect Josh Lowe, meanwhile, seems likely to step into center field before long — perhaps even on Opening Day, if Kiermaier’s contract is moved post-lockout.
Obviously, not all of these players will turn into stars or even regulars, but for the next several seasons, the Rays can build their roster around the likes of McClanahan, Baz, Patino and Rasmussen on the pitching side and around Franco, Arozarena, both Lowes and perhaps Brujan on the position-player side. No one from that group will reach arbitration until at least 2024 (most not until 2025), and the Rays will probably succeed when it comes to persuading at least one or two of their pre-arbitration stars to sign a club-friendly extension. Tampa Bay doesn’t even have $15MM in guaranteed contracts on the books in any individual season from 2023-25 right now — a three-year span that would represent years two, three and four of a theoretical Freeman deal.
None of this is to say that a Freeman-to-the-Rays scenario is likely. Calling it a “long shot” possibility might be charitable, in fact. Tampa Bay will face steep competition from the incumbent Braves as well as a host of large-market teams looking to add a marquee bat to the lineup, and the Rays’ margin for error on a contract of this magnitude is infinitesimal compared to that of a team like the Dodgers, Yankees or even the Braves. But, when considering the Rays’ minimal long-term commitments and the wealth of MLB-ready, pre-arbitration talent they already have in the fold, it’s at least possible to squint and see how they could fit Freeman into the mix — even if he’s earning upwards of $30MM annually.