Andrew Friedman turned down another team to stay in Tampa Bay. Experts argue about his overall importance to the organization. He is obviously one of the most talented general managers in the game (perhaps the most talented), but others point to the number of bright minds they have in place. The good news is that they don't have to find out.
The Rays didn't do much at the Winter Meetings, but they made some big news afterward when they signed Matt Moore to a five-year deal. Moore pitched in only five games in the regular season, but one of them included a shutout of the Yankees. He also pitched a gem in Game 1 of the ALDS. That was enough for Friedman to buy out his arbitration years.
The Rays are still unsettled behind the plate and at first base. Kelly Shoppach and Casey Kotchman are free agents, but neither has generated a lot of interest. That will work in the Rays' favor as those guys will be a lot cheaper after the new year. If the Rays get both of those guys back, they will be right back where they were last season.
The strength of the Rays is their depth. Ben Zobrist can play second or right field, and he could be called on to do both. Sean Rodriguez can play either of the middle infield spots equally well. If the Rays have their way, Zobrist will be at second and Rodriguez will be at short. Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson can also play both middle infield spots. Brignac could slide to short (with Rodriguez at second) if the Rays need Zobrist in the outfield.
Finally, there is Evan Longoria. Longoria was the MVP of the second half, and if you trace his batted ball statistics, he is due for a major rebound. With Jose Bautista in the league, it may be too much to think Longoria can be the MVP in 2012, but he sure played like one down the stretch.
The key to the Rays' success is a continuing pipeline of young prospects. They couldn't afford Carl Crawford, but Desmond Jennings was ready for prime time by the All-Star break. They didn't skip a beat. B.J. Upton has been the subject of many trade rumors, but he doesn't appear to be going anywhere for now.
So, the only real drama will be at designated hitter. Johnny Damon may or may not return depending on what he is offered elsewhere. Damon is at the point where is making a push to get to 3,000 hits. So, he wants an everyday job wherever it will come. They could use Brandon Guyer in right field and Matt Joyce as a DH. There are options available.
The strength of the Rays is actually in their fielding. Jeremy Hellickson won the Rookie of the Year Award on the strength of a sub-3.00 ERA. His fielding independent pitching was actually over 4.00. None of the other Rays had a separation quite like that, but it is clear that all of them benefit from the brilliant defense (Rays finished first in DER).
James Shields was nearly dealt last July, but now if he joins David Price on the top of the rotation, the Rays can afford to trade a starter or two because of all of the prospects they have coming up. Moore is obviously at the head of the class, but Alex Gibb and Jeff Niemann appear to be on the outside looking in. Most teams would love to have a proven starter like Niemann somewhere in their rotation. Considering Price, Moore, Hellickson and Shields, there isn't much room for anyone.
Kyle Farnsworth quietly had a very effective season as the Rays' closer. Closing games has not been a usual role for him, but he seemed to do fine. Meanwhile, Joel Peralta took over as the setup man and also did a fine job. From here, the Rays are getting creative. They likely will move their excess starters into the pen. In particular, Niemann could become a key figure in middle relief.
J.P. Howell was a very effective reliever a few seasons ago, but injuries have taken their toll. He was healthy last year, but often times a player takes an extra year to recover from a major arm injury. The Rays are hoping that will be the case this time around. They may add another reliever or two to deepen the bullpen, but usually they rely on youth.
The Rest of the Offseason
Settling on a regular catcher and first baseman is priority one and two for the rest of the offseason. They have internal candidates, but getting Kelly Shoppach and Casey Kotchman to come back would be a nice Christmas present for Friedman and the fans of the Rays. Of course, a new stadium would be the best gift of all.
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