Next Steps: Complete Offseason Guide, Predictions for Tampa Bay Rays
It's hard to call a team that's averaged 92 wins per season over the past six years with four playoff appearances "overachievers." But that's exactly what the Rays are year after year with a roster that's always put together with limited resources.
Despite three ALDS defeats in the past four seasons, the Rays will likely continue on the same path that has made them a perennial contender. After all, they've been one of the most successful teams in baseball since 2008.
And it's not like they have the ability to boost payroll very much. They have one of, if not the least, supportive fanbases in baseball. It's hard to reinvest in the team when customers aren't paying to see the product on the field.
While they aren't expected to pursue any big-name free agents or acquire any players with high salaries in a trade, the spotlight will be on them this winter as long as they don't come out and say "there's no way we're trading David Price this offseason."
Aside from Price possibly moving on in a deal that would net the team a bigger return than they got from Kansas City last offseason in the James Shields trade, expect a lot of bargain basement shopping by general manager Andrew Friedman as he tries to find the next Fernando Rodney or James Loney.
Here's everything you'll need to know before Friedman and the front office get started.
Including club options for second baseman Ben Zobrist ($7 million) and shortstop Yunel Escobar ($5 million), which are highly likely to be exercised, the Rays have $23.5 million committed to five players and possibly another $30 million to the eight arbitration-eligible players expected to be tendered contracts.
David DeJesus' $6.5 million club option should be team-friendly enough for the small-market Rays, although they may only exercise it with the intention of shopping him this winter.
If they did happen to pick up DeJesus' option, they would have committed approximately $60 million to 14 players, which would be less than $2 million under the team's 2013 Opening Day payroll, according to Baseball Prospectus, before adding the $5-7 million it would cost to fill out the roster with players making the minimum salary or slightly more. With a home attendance ranking last in baseball during the regular season at 18,645 per game, according to ESPN, it's difficult to see the Rays boosting payroll much this winter.
It helps that star third baseman Evan Longoria (pictured) still won't make much—he's due $7.5 million in 2014—but this is the last time they' ll have that luxury. He'll make between $11 million and $19.5 million between 2015-2022.
Clearing salary by trading DeJesus and others, notably ace David Price, could be necessary to fill holes throughout their roster. Price made over $10 million in 2013 and could make at least $15 million in arbitration next season. With two years left of team control, his value could be at its peak, and the Rays will be tempted to shop him.
General manager Andrew Friedman has done a terrific job of finding bargain-basement signings on the free-agent market. Since those players are usually signed to one-year deals, he's under pressure to do it year after year.
This winter will be no exception as several key players are eligible to become free agents, and the farm system, aside from a few starting pitchers, isn't ready to produce much big league talent.
First baseman James Loney and closer Fernando Rodney (pictured), two of the best free-agent values of the past two offseasons, are likely to depart for much more money than the Rays are capable of paying them. Same with Kelly Johnson, who posted a .716 OPS with 16 homers after signing a one-year, $2 million deal before the season.
And while he didn't pitch one game for Tampa Bay after being acquired from the White Sox in late July, Jesse Crain is expected to be one of the top relievers on the free-agent market and isn't likely to fit into the Rays' budget. The 32-year-old had an 0.74 ERA in 38 appearances but had been sidelined with a shoulder injury since late June.
Notable free agents who could return at a cheap rate are designated hitters Luke Scott, who only played in 91 games due to injury, and Delmon Young, catcher Jose Molina and pitchers Roberto Hernandez and Jamey Wright.
Holes to Fill
On a limited budget, the Rays will need to find a replacement for free-agent first baseman James Loney (pictured), with catcher and the bullpen also on the priority list.
Jose Lobaton, who started 76 games at catcher in 2013, had a solid year at the plate (.714 OPS in 100 games), including his walk-off homer in Game 3 of the ALDS but had a terrible time throwing out runners (14 percent). Veteran Jose Molina, who does a much better job of controlling the running game and is one of the best in baseball at framing pitches, is a free agent.
Molina could be brought back at an affordable rate. But at 38 years old, the expectation is that he wouldn't start more than half of the games. Regardless, his return wouldn't stop the team from finding an upgrade to Lobaton, if they felt that it was necessary.
Closer Fernando Rodney, who had a 1.91 ERA and 10.1 K/9 with 85 saves the past two seasons, is very likely to land a nice contract somewhere other than Tampa this winter so the team must decide how they'll replace him. Veteran Joel Peralta (3.41 ERA, 9.3 K/9, 41 holds) and lefties Jake McGee (4.02 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 27 holds) and Alex Torres (1.71 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 5 holds) could be given consideration, although the Rays would probably want to add another setup man in that case.
With several outfielders currently in the mix, including David DeJesus if his club option is exercised, the team should have enough bats to where a designated hitter addition isn't necessary. But if one of the outfielders is traded to free up some payroll—De Jesus has a $6.5 million club option; Matt Joyce could make around $5 million in arbitration—it could free up a spot to bring in a veteran free agent to fill the role that Luke Scott occupied when he was healthy in 2013.
Potential Free-Agent Targets
Expect the Rays to go after a few more one-year, $2 million bargains to replace a few that are departing. They could also go over that, depending on how many holes they believe they'll need to fill. If they're comfortable going with Jose Lobaton at catcher and an inexpensive backup, and/or replacing Fernando Rodney in-house, then they could spend more on a first baseman to replace James Loney.
Here's a look at a few potential free-agent targets who could help fill the Rays' needs.
Geovany Soto, C: As a part-time player, Soto only logged 71 at-bats during the second half of the season but had 23 hits, including five homers and six doubles. He also threw out 29 percent of attempted base stealers on the year. But after a year-and-a-half of struggles at the plate prior to that, the 30-year-old won't break the bank this winter. Finding a starting job will likely be his priority, and Tampa Bay could have one for him.
Michael Morse, 1B: An injury-plagued 2013, in which he posted a .651 OPS between Seattle and Baltimore, has crippled Morse's value. The Rays, however, have taken plenty of chances on players with diminished value, and the 31-year-old will only be three years removed from his breakout season of 2011 (.910 OPS, 31 HR, 95 RBI).
Mark Reynolds, 1B: When playing at first base the past two seasons, Reynolds has 32 homers and 100 RBI in 574 at-bats. He's also a capable defender at the position. Things have not gone so well, however, when he plays third base, where he's been inconsistent defensively and at the plate. The Rays could be the team smart enough to sign him to an inexpensive deal and keep him away from the hot corner for good.
Raul Ibañez, DH: Signing Ibañez (pictured) would likely require the team to stretch their budget some, considering he's coming off of a strong season (.793 OPS, 29 HR). But he's 41, so it might not require as much stretching as that type of season normally would.
Frank Francisco, RP: If there's a reliever on the free-agent market that could use some rebuilding of his value, it's Francisco. And if there's a team that is good at helping relievers get back on track, it's the Rays. The 34-year-old Francisco missed most of this season with elbow trouble and was ineffective with the Mets in 2012 (5.53 ERA in 48 appearances), but he was very good the previous four seasons between Texas and Toronto (3.54 ERA, 3.2 BB.9, 10.5 K/9, 49 Sv).
Given the team's tight budget, it's likely that at least one player making a relatively high salary is traded this winter and maybe even more. Outfielders David DeJesus (pictured) or Matt Joyce could be on the block, as well as starting pitcher David Price.
While Price could net the team a package of top prospects, including at least one who is major league ready, the clear objective of trading one of the outfielders would be to free up money and, if possible, fill a roster hole.
If Price stays put, the team could look to trade another starting pitcher. Jeremy Hellickson, who is eligible for arbitration for the first time, did not have a strong season and might benefit from a change of scenery. At age 26 and with several teams looking to acquire young and controllable starting pitching, Hellickson's value likely hasn't decreased too much after he posted a 5.17 ERA in 2013.
Here are a few players that the team could look to target in a trade.
Yasmani Grandal, C, San Diego Padres: Grandal will be coming back from a season-ending knee injury, which was suffered only 28 games after he returned from a 50-game suspension for a positive testosterone test. Needless to say, his value has dropped some. With Nick Hundley capable of handling the starting duties for another year and the catcher of the future, Austin Hedges, on the fast track, the Padres could be willing to deal the 24-year-old Grandal back to the state where he starred while at the University of Miami.
Ike Davis, 1B, New York Mets: Despite a strong finish, Ike Davis may have played his last game with the Mets, who might not be interested in finding out if the 26-year-old can have a third consecutive horrible first half of the season.
Logan Morrison, 1B, Miami Marlins: If Cuban slugger Jose Dariel Abreu is going to sign with one of the Florida teams, chances are it will be the Marlins. MLB.com's Joe Frisaro reported that the team could make a very competitive offer for the 26-year-old first baseman. If they do happen to sign him, Logan Morrison would very likely go on the trade block and likely land on the radar of the Rays.
Kelvin Herrera, RP, Kansas City Royals: If the Rays can turn a struggling mid-30s journeyman (Rodney) armed with a high-90s fastball and changeup with plus potential into one of the best closers in baseball, then it's certainly possible that they can do the same with a 23-year-old that features a similar repertoire. Herrera could be expendable after an up-and-down season.