Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander told reporters during his season-closing press conference back in October that the club wanted to add a big bat this winter — particularly of the left-handed-hitting variety — after Tampa Bay’s offense managed to score only one run over 24 innings in that marathon two-game Wild Card Series ouster versus the Guardians.
Rays hitters combined for a .686 OPS during the 2022 regular season, which ranked 25th among all 30 major league clubs. And against right-handed pitching, their combined team batting line was just .234/.305/.373 across a sample size of 4,580 total plate appearances.
Nothing overly exciting has come together for the Rays up to this point, and Neander acknowledged in a recent chat with Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times that it’s probably too late to make a meaningful offensive addition from what’s left on the open market.
“As the winter went on, and as we spoke publicly, I think the focus was more on an established player, ideally left-handed, being the right type of player for our group,” Neander told Topkin. “We feel really good about the assortment of breakthrough and bounce-back players we have on our roster currently. It was really more about adding an established, consistent offensive player, and there aren’t that many of them out there that are available.”
There was chatter about a number of possible pursuits to help the cause — the Rays were linked at various points to free agents like Josh Bell and Andrew McCutchen. They were also said to be in the hunt for Sean Murphy before the Athletics dealt him to the Braves as part of a three-team swap that also involved the Brewers. Topkin writes that Tampa Bay also made runs at Michael Brantley and Brandon Belt before those players signed elsewhere.
The hope is that a trade for run-scoring help might come together sometime this spring, or better yet before the Rays even roll into camp in Orlando, Florida. Neander also plans to keep his ear open for in-season moves in 2023, should those “breakthrough and bounce-back players” — think Wander Franco, Josh Lowe, and Jonathan Aranda — fail to come through over the course of the first half.
It’s all quite daunting in an AL East that features the Blue Jays (3rd in combined OPS last year at .760) and the Yankees (4th in combined OPS at .751), but Topkin suggests the Rays could have room to add to a roughly $70MM payroll as the baseball calendar moves toward the summer months.
Maybe there could be a circle-back with the A’s, who always seem to be open for business and would likely listen on Seth Brown even after he cranked 25 home runs in 150 games last year. Or perhaps there might be a match with Twins on Max Kepler given Minnesota’s recent addition of Michael A. Taylor from the Royals. One thing the Rays do have is prospects, both low-level and the more MLB-ready types, and Tampa Bay’s front office has certainly never lacked for creativity in finding ways to pull off under-the-radar improvements.