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Coming weeks get interesting for Tampa Bay Rays

Available for return: Former Ray Carlos Peña, who hit 28 homers for the Cubs last year, is a free agent.

Associated Press

Available for return: Former Ray Carlos Peña, who hit 28 homers for the Cubs last year, is a free agent.

The Rays have a lot to look forward to in 2012, starting, presumably in the next couple of weeks, with a series of moves to improve the offense while filling holes at DH and first base.

The patience executive vice president Andrew Friedman and company have shown thus far has served to only increase the suspense, as they weigh trade and free agent options in what likely will be a sequence of linked moves. They seem determined to find more production than they got last season from DH Johnny Damon and 1B Casey Kotchman (a combined .282, 26 homers, 121 RBIs) since they could have re-signed both by now, and have pieces to deal and flexibility to expand the payroll.

What they ultimately will do is near impossible to predict, as they put a premium on secrecy and seem to enjoy that most of what does leak out involving them tends to not be true.

With seven weeks until the opening of spring training, here are a few things to watch for:

A big deal: With an excess of starting pitching and several holes to fill, they're going to make a trade. Most likely they'll ship out RHP Wade Davis or RHP Jeff Niemann, but if the package is overwhelming they'd have to consider trading RHP James Shields or LHP David Price. San Diego 1B Anthony Rizzo is among the hot names, with Union-Tribune writer Bill Center predicting he will be traded to the Rays, but then flipped to the Cubs. The Angels' Mark Trumbo is another.

A big name: There's a chance the Rays end up filling the two lineup spots with complementary pieces, but it seems more likely one is of some repute. 1B Carlos Peña is probably the biggest free agent bat still available after Prince Fielder, with Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Hideki Matsui and Luke Scott (coming off injury) among others.

A pen pal: The bullpen may be set but adding another late-inning reliever could make a huge difference. With closers Ryan Madson and Francisco Cordero among those still on a bloated market, they could make a pitch for more proven relief.

A key catch: As much as Rays officials say they are, they really can't be comfortable going into the season with the catching pairing of veteran Jose Molina (who hasn't started more than 51 games since the 2008 season) and either Robinson Chirinos or Jose Lobaton. The overall team is too good to leave it in their hands; expect another addition.

A new pact: Manager Joe Maddon's contract is up at the end of the season, and as much mutual admiration as there has been it would seem logical an extension gets done before the opening of camp. That's if there's going to be one.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Interest in INF Ryan Theriot, presumably as a backup, has been preliminary to this point. … Principal owner Stuart Sternberg, his family and 150 Rays staffers will gather Saturday at the Layla's House learning center in Sulfur Springs to build a playground (their third) as part of the KaBOOM program. … 3B Evan Longoria went on a juice-only diet for 10 days, losing 7 pounds and feeling "re-energized and fresh." … RHP Andy Sonnanstine moved on to the Cubs with good memories, calling the 2008 ALCS clincher "the most intense and joyful moment of my life." … SI.com's Joe Sheehan predicts a Cy Young award for Price and a push for the MVP award by CF B.J. Upton. … Maddon heads out mid month on a trip to Greece, Italy and Spain. … OF Sam Fuld hosts a sports camp for diabetics age 8-18 and friends at USF on Feb. 3-4; for info see diabetes.health.usf.edu/samfuldcamp. … ESPN tabbed Ben Zobrist's 7-for-10/10-RBI doubleheader in Minnesota its "performance of the year," and the Game 162 rally against the Yankees as top moment, plus it gave Fuld honorable mention for top defensive performance. Also, ex-Ray, now-Red Sox Carl Crawford was named "Goat of the Year."

.on the web

With the newspaper name change, our Twitter coverage has changed to @TBTimes_Rays.

Coming weeks get interesting for Tampa Bay Rays 12/31/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 31, 2011 6:03pm]
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