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Topkin: Rays’ challenge is to improve product while trimming payroll

By Marc Topkin
WILL VRAGOVIC | Times Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb (53) in the dugout after being pulled from the game in the sixth inning of the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

Rays officials start the offseason with two straight­forward, though not necessarily easily paired, tasks: make their team better and less expensive.

Coming off a third straight losing season under current management — having tweaked their philosophy in search of the proper mix of offense and defense, repeatedly shuffling their roster and, in the past month, remaking their coaching staff — the Rays are still seeking the right mix to win more games.

"We certainly have our work cut out for us," general manager Erik Neander said. "The talent on display throughout the playoffs, especially in the World Series, we have to find a way to get to that level competitively. It doesn’t happen overnight.

"Our farm system is much improved and we have a talented major-league core, things for our organization to be proud of. But ultimately it’s about major-league wins, and as an organization we’re not satisfied with where we are at right now. We’ve prepared extensively for this winter, our staff has done a great job, we’re ready to go."

As if that isn’t a tough enough challenge, they also have orders from principal owner Stuart Sternberg to reduce a payroll that started last season at $70 million and by the end was pushing $80 million. How much of a reduction is not known, and given how the Rays value flexibility, it is somewhat relative to trade opportunities, but even a modest reduction will require major moves in terms of trading veteran players.

Here’s a look at what the Rays are looking at over the next 144 days until the 2018 opener:e_SClBGive and take

Making any additions is going to require subtractions. Even with eight free agents coming off the roster — including RH starter Alex Cobb, 1B/DHs Lucas Duda and Logan Morrison and RH relievers Steve Cishek, Tommy Hunter and Sergio Romo — it would cost the Rays more than $80 million to bring back the remaining group plus minimum-salaried roster fillers. That’s because they already have five players signed for …

$37.75 million

3B Evan Longoria$13.5M

C Wilson Ramos$10.5M

RHP Chris Archer$6.25M

CF Kevin Kiermaier$5.5M

RHP Nathan Eovaldi$2M

And the Rays have 13 players eligible for arbitration, projected by mlbtraderumors.com to make …

$41.4 million

RHP Jake Odorizzi$6.5M

OF/DH Corey Dickerson$6.4M

RHP Alex Colome$5.5M

SS Adeiny Hechavarria$5M

INF Brad Miller$4.4M

OF Steven Souza Jr. $3.6M

LHP Dan Jennings$2.5M

RHP Brad Boxberger$1.9M

LHP Xavier Cedeno$1.4M

C Jesus Sucre$1.3M

RHP Chase Whitley$1M

RHP Shawn Tolleson$1M

INF Matt Duffy$900K

Some of those arbitration eligibles will be dropped anyway but to make any substantial savings, the Rays are going to have to deal from the top of the charts.

Who?

With face-of-the-franchise Longoria coming off a down year and Archer a bad September following his forearm tightness scare, the trade value might not be there, even if the Rays wanted to be that bold.

More likely they will look to deal Odorizzi and Dickerson, though both had flawed seasons. Odorizzi dealt with inconsistency and a minor injury, Dickerson followed an All-Star first half with a no-star second and a so-so showing in leftfield. Also potentially in play is Colome, whose salary increases about 10 times in his first year of arbitration (and will keep rising) as his closing performance dropped, and Miller, though the Rays may be tempted to see if core muscle repair surgery returns him to his 2016 30-homer form. In return, they almost always seek youth, either controllable and not-yet-expensive major-leaguers or prospects.

What do they need?

Even if they lose Cobb and Odorizzi (or Archer), the Rays feel they have enough young arms to man their rotation. A bigger concern is the bullpen, which needs some experienced replacements, even more if Colome is dealt. Position wise, they seem set at catcher (Ramos), third (Longoria), shortstop (Hechavarria, most likely), center (Kiermaier) and right (Souza), leaving holes at first, DH and, depending on what they do with Dickerson and Miller, potentially leftfield and second base (which they could fill internally). Free agents can sign with a new team starting at 5 p.m. Monday, but the Rays rarely are aggressive early, waiting for the market to get defined and usually shopping on the discount aisle. Whom could they get? Always price relative, but there could be some initial interesting options at first (Yonder Alonso, Adam Lind, Mitch Moreland, the lesser of Duda or Morrison) and DH (Jose Bautista, Mike Napoli). There always are plenty of relievers available; the key is picking right (and better than recently).

A qualified gamble

The only way to get draft pick compensation for losing a free agent is by making a qualifying offer, which is a one-year deal at the average of the 125 best-paid players, a meager $17.4 million this year. By the 5 p.m. Monday deadline, expect the Rays to make such an offer to Cobb (left) then hope (really, really hard, with their fingers crossed) his agents get a good-enough feel over the allotted 10 days that big-bucks, multiyear offers will be there so he turns down the qualifying offer. (Obviously adding a $17.4 million salary hurts that cut-the-payroll concept.) The qualifying offer rules are complicated, but in simple form, the Rays, as a revenue sharing recipient, would get a compensation pick after the first round of the 2018 draft if Cobb signs for $50 million plus, a pick after the second round if less.

Key dates/deadlines

Monday, 5 p.m.: Free agents can sign with new teams, qualifying offers made

Nov. 16: Decisions due on qualifying offers

Nov. 20: Additions made to 40-man roster to protect players from Rule 5 draft; several Rays prospects in play, led by 1B/OF Jake Bauers, RHP Brent Honeywell

Dec. 1: Nontender decisions on arbitration eligible players

Rays rumblings

Though longtime friends with new Nationals manager Dave Martinez, former Rays 3B/bench coach Tom Foley said he has no interest in a coaching job if offered and will stay in his new Rays gig. … Among the 1B coaching candidates was Ruben Amaro Jr., who ended up with the Mets. … Mlbtraderumors.com’s always interesting predictions have Cobb to the Twins for four years, $48 million; Morrison to Red Sox (three, $36M); Cishek to Rangers (two, $14M); Hunter to Braves (two, $12M); and Duda to Mariners (one, $6M). And the Rays signing Tommy John rehabbing RHP Michael Pineda. … Class gesture by the Astros, in the midst of the World Series, buying Halloween party lunch for Rays office staff as a thanks for hosting the three August games at the Trop. … Congrats to longtime Rays TV man Todd Kalas, whose first season in the Astros booth culminated in a title. … The Rays are a midpack 33-1 to win the 2018 Series, per online site Bovada (Astros 5-1 favorites), and 11th overall in espn.com’s first offseason power rankings. … An announcement is forthcoming on the previously reported front-office reorganization, with baseball operations president Matt Silverman going back to the business side as essentially co-president with Brian Auld. … The Rays made a point not to talk about his contributions for proprietary reasons, but the work of now former pitching analyst Josh Kalk was highly valued in the analytics community. … Tampa’s Tony La Russa has talked about one day coming home to work, but he is a better fit in the Red Sox front office, which he joined this week.