The Rays have until midnight tonight to tender contracts to their nine arbitration eligible players, with only four of any real question.
They are going to tender SS Jason Bartlett, even though he is likely to make more than $5-million next season and they are cutting payroll. There are several reasons for that, starting with the decent chance Bartlett will be their starting shortstop next season, and a key part of their lineup. But even if they plan to turn the job over to Reid Brignac, there has been enough trade interest in Bartlett this off-season - with the Orioles, Padres and Pirates mentioned most prominently at this point - that they have to hang on to him to now because of what he could bring them in deal.
The decisions to tender are obvious on RHP Matt Garza and CF B.J. Upton, and seemingly so, given his versatility to start or relieve, with RHP Andy Sonnanstine.
And they are not going to tender C Dioner Navarro, who had a miserable season, spent more than two months in the minors, then walked out on the team when left off the division series roster, refusing to stick around if needed in case of an injury.
So that leaves these four, and the question of whether to tender contracts which makes them signed players and, as most do through arbitration, likely to get raises. And even in the rare case of a player whose pay may be cut - such as J.P. Howell, who missed the whole season with injury - it can only go down 20 percent.
Between now and midnight, the Rays are likely to explore, and seek, deals to sign at least a couple to contracts for less than they would make in arbitration, with the leverage of cutting them loose if they don't take the deals. The player has to decide whether to take the security of being signed to a big-league deal or take advantage of the opportunity to be a free agent and seek more money elsewhere with the risk of ending up with a minor-league contract.
Here's a look:
Lance Cormier: The Rays need relievers, since Andy Sonnanstine is technically the only returnee at the moment, so it makes sense to keep Cormier. But Cormier made $1.2-million last season, going 4-3, 3.92 in 60 games with more hits allowed (68) than innings pitched (62) and more walks (34) than strikeouts (30), and is line to get between $1.5- and $2-million. So the decision could come down to whether the Rays think he's worth that much money, or if they can do better spending it on someone else.
Willy Aybar: Without knowing if free-agent 1B Carlos Pena will be back, and who could be available to replace him and also to fill the DH spot, it's hard for the Rays to know today how much use they'll have for Aybar, who can play first and third but not very well, and hit only .220 with six homers and a .656 OPS in 2010. Given that they already declined a $2.2-million option (and paid Aybar a $275,000 buyout), they obviously don't feel he should get much of a raise from the $1.35-million he made this season.
Dan Johnson: Like with Aybar, it's difficult for the Rays to know today how much they might need Johnson, whether to start at first, to be the primary DH, to be a utility player at first, third and the outfield. He has only a $500,000 salary last season, but is in line for a raise as a first-year abitration eligible. They could also non-tender him and try to re-sign him to a minor-league deal.
J.P. Howell: Howell certainly seems to be in the Rays plans, but with the news that the lefty reliever won't be ready to start the 2011 season after missing all of 2010 with a shoulder injury that required surgery, it's logical they'd consider way to reduce their commitment. He made $1.8-million last season, and since the rules don't allow for more than a 20 percent pay cut - that would be $1.44-million - they might seek to negotiate something lower.