Tampa Bay Rays Offseason Report: Dec. 18, 2009

Thaddeus WalkContributor IDecember 18, 2009

Welcome to another edition of Thaddeus' Tampa Bay Rays Offseason Report. Each and every Friday, we're going to recap the moves, trades, signings, and other nonsense of the previous week in the wonderful world of Tampa Bay baseball; keeping you, Dear Reader, up to date with the team until Opening Day in April 2010 against the Baltimore Orioles.


Roy Halladay is a Phillie. Cliff Lee is an M. Blue Jays got 'spects.

And with that over-hyped ridiculousness out of the way, greetings Dear Reader, and welcome to my corner of the Internets.

Some of the biggest names of the decade switched coasts this week, and more and more free agents are finding themselves teams. The biggest news not Roy Halladay-related this week however, is all the players who all of a sudden find themselves without a home...non-tenderation comes once a year, ironically just before Christmas.

Big names like SP Chien-Ming Wang, DH/OF Jack Cust, and RP Matt Capps found themselves waking up to unhappy news on Sunday as they joined the free agent pool when their teams declined to offer them a contract.

Luckily for them, already teams are swooping down on these new additions and you can rest assured that Wang, Capps, and Cust are the last people who will find themselves jobless come Spring Training.

But this column is about the Tampa Bay Rays and let's focus on them. It was another quiet week for the Rays with only a couple signings and rumors, but the rumors are certainly fun, in any case.

According to sources, the Rays inquired into new free agent Cust in the middle of the week. Now, most fans would dread the idea of having a slow guy who has no defense, and is on the wrong side of his 30's on the team (especially after the DH/OF Pat Burrell experiment imploded last year) but this trade served another purpose: new pressure on the Cubbies and GM Jim Hendry. Hendry is still balking at the idea of picking up a good chunk of troublemaking OF Milton Bradley's salary in a swap for Burrell, and if they Rays have found another suitor for the ex-slugger and want to scoop up Cust for a DH role, it puts a new spin on the situation.

(EDIT: Reports Friday say that the Cubs have traded Bradley to the Mariners for perennial underachiever SP Carlos Silva. This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever from the Cubs side, but in any case it leaves the Rays in quite a pickle. Should they try to dump Burrell off on a different team (maybe the mystery NL team interested in Pat we've heard so much about) or hope be bounces back from his awful 2009?)

Another continued rumor in the Rays camp is the increasingly aggressive interest in ex-Jays and Angels SP Kelvim Escobar. The Rays sent a scouting team to watch Escobar pitch in a simulated game on Wednesday, and really liked what they saw. Tampa Bay's location is also enticing to Escobar himself, and he has expressed a returned interest in playing at the Trop in 2010 as a reliever. His pitch speed is where it should be, but reports of eight or nine other teams interested in the ten-year veteran could complicate things.

Rumors out of the way; let's get to the news!

Dec. 12, 2009—RF Gabe Gross non-tendered by the team.

Gabe Gross was a quietly effective part of the Rays family in both 2008 and 2009; in a platoon in right field that he shared with name-sharing Gabe Kapler, Gross hit 19 home runs with an .OPS of .724 and a steady .441 OBP. He hit a walk-off homer against Yankees RP Mariano Rivera back in May of 2009, and was a fan-favorite the rest of the season.

With the re-signing of Kapler in October and with future RF starter Matt Joyce as ready as he's going to be in AAA Durham with the Bulls, Gross found himself without a place to be useful on the team.

Good luck, Gabe, come back and play us soon.

Dec. 12, 2009Agreed to one-year deals with RP Randy Choate and RP Lance Cormier.

Nothing shocking here. Choate was originally a minor league contract to be used as depth, but became a solid lefty specialist when given his chance in the majors after RP Brian Shouse got hurt. He will make $700k in 2010, and will be probably continue to be used primarily as a lefty-one-out-guy (LOOGY).

Cormier came over from a trade with the Orioles in 2008 and was a shut-down set up man for ex-closer RP Troy Percival when the Rays made it to the World Series that year. In 2009 he regressed some, but still is a capable long relief pitcher with a solid breaking ball. He will make $1.2m in 2010, making he and Choate a huge bargain for the talent they have, especially in the late months of the season.

Dec. 12, 2009Tendered contracts to OF B.J. Upton, SP Matt Garza, SS Jason Bartlett, RP J.P. Howell, RP Grant Balfour, and C's Kelly Shoppach and Dioner Navarro.

Except for Balfour and Navarro, no details of any contracts have been released yet, so it will be interesting to see who signs before the mid-January deadline and who will go to the arbitration courts to work out a deal.

Fiery Balfour signed a $2.05m one-year deal and avoided arbitration the next day. Balfour is the flamethrower of the Rays bullpen, serving up a steady diet of fastballs to hitters an almost predictably ending up with either a walk or a strikeout. He is the emotional lightning-rod of the team, famous nation-wide for screaming "Sit the @$%# down!" after striking out then-White Sox SS Orlando Cabrera during the 2008 ALCS following a heated argument.

Navarro is a surprise here. He seemed like a perfect candidate for non-tenderation after the signing of Kelly Shoppach before the Winter Meeting, and yet he's back again for $2.1 million, exactly what he made in 2009. Navi had an awful year that season after being an All-Star in 2008.

Even with regression, it seems that Navarro and Shop are not ideal platoon partners with each player having similar splits (both are strong against lefties). The only reason this writer can think of is that there must be some remaining questions about Navi from other teams; most recently the Rangers and the Royals expressed interest. The going rate on an average catcher this year seems to be $3 million annually, so Navi could prove to be a cheaper alternative to a free agent like C Bengie Molina.

Either way, the catcher position is anything but solidified for Opening Day.

Dec. 15, 2009 - Signed eight players to minor league contracts with an invitation to spring training: 1B Chris Richard; RHP's Winston Abreu, Joe Bateman, Jeff Bennett and Richard De Los Santos; and LHP's Jason Cromer, Carlos Hernandez and R.J. Swindle.

Everyone is back is the sum up here, and at least Swindle is expected to compete for a bullpen position come Spring Training (probably as a LOOGY competing with Choate). Richard played well as a replacement for All-Star 1B Carlos Peña in September after Peña broke his hand, but is not expected to make the 25-man roster.

Dec. 15, 2009 - Reports say PTBNL in the trade with Cleveland that brought in C Shoppach is either one of RHP's Mitch Talbot or Joseph Cruz.

This is only another rumor, but it makes the most sense, as the Indians need the right-handed help. The only question is whether they want a major-league-ready, if inexperienced, Talbot, or a higher-upside future pitcher in Cruz.

Cruz is coming off a nice season in A+ and is only 21, but Talbot is rotation-ready and might be what the Indians need to try to compete in a tightening AL Central.

Talbot is out of options with the Rays and with the starting depth Tampa Bay has, would probably never find himself in the starting rotation in the majors, whereas he would start right away with the Indians; he is probably the player to be named later.

Whoever is picked will have a great chance to succeed in Cleveland. The deadline for the announcement is Dec. 20.

Dec. 17, 2009 - Rays name Stan Boroski as assistant pitching coach.

This may come as a warning to pitching coach Jim Hickey after a bullpen meltdown cost the Rays a playoff chance in September of the 2009 season. Boroski comes in from the Houston Astros organization after spending 18 years as a pitching coach or scout, the last three years for AA Corpus Christi. Only time will tell if he will actually have a large part in helping the pitching staff or if he more of an assistant to the pitching coach rather than an assistant coach.

He will replace Brian Anderson, who will become an official Rays on-air color commentator as he was last year for some away games accompanying Dewayne Staats.

No news on whether this will effect the contract of Kevin Kennedy, the current TV color man.

Dec. 18, 2009 - Signed 1B Ryan Shealy and IF Joe Dillan to minor league deals with a Spring Training invitation.

Shealy is a 30-year-old righty. In 1,431 AAA plate appearances he's crushed to the tune of a .300 average with a .920 OPS; it seems unlikely he could hit .300 in the majors, but if nothing else, Shealy is a better insurance policy for Peña than Richard.

Dillon, 34, appeared in 15 games for Tampa Bay last season as a designated hitter, third baseman and second baseman, hitting .300 with one home run and two RBIs. He was a member of the Rays' active roster for 62 games May 26-Aug. 7.

In 35 games for Triple-A Durham, Dillon hit .244 and spent time at all four infield positions.



That wraps up this week, but keep on coming back, there's a lot of off-season to come. Next week's column may be a little late because of the holiday, but if there's news, look for this writer to cover it. 'Tis the season for Rays baseball (and eggnog...mmm...)

Be good to each other.

63 days until pitchers and catchers report. Don't stop believin'. Hold onto that feeeeeeeeliiiiiin'...



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