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Expect Tampa Bay Rays to try to upgrade roster despite payroll restrictions

Johnny Damon heads a big group of solid hitters who are still on the market.

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Johnny Damon heads a big group of solid hitters who are still on the market.

Spring training opens in 2½ weeks, and the company line is that there's a good chance the Rays roster will look pretty much as it does now.

Doubt it.

The Rays aren't, despite rumors flying elsewhere, going to make a big-money addition.

They can't, at least as constituted. They already have a franchise-record $68 million committed and will be over $70 million when they sign their 5-6 players (such as Jeff Niemann and Ben Zobrist) in the $400,000-plus range.

But there are too many quality free agents still on the market whose price will be dropping as the calendar flips and too many interesting ideas floating around the exec offices at the Trop to think that someone new won't join the 49 already ticketed for Port Charlotte.

The market is at the point now where players are being forced to take minor-league deals just to get into camp: Ex-Ray Jonny Gomes, for example, hit 20 homers in 281 at-bats for the Reds, spent months on the market and may end up going back to Cincinnati on a minor-league deal. Rocco Baldelli, too. Jim Edmonds just did. And Miguel Batista.

Given their positional and roster flexibility (plus three open spots on the 40-man if needed), the Rays are in a good spot to do something. Maybe another established pitcher, maybe another middle infielder. And potentially another bat.

The Rays want to believe DH Pat Burrell will bounce back from his horrendous 2009. They also would trade him if they could get out from under enough of his $9 million salary. What they aren't in position to do is eat his money, in a trade or release, and pay a lot to bring in another hitter.

And with several decent swingers on the market (from Johnny Damon on down), that's what could make the next few weeks interesting.

Commercial breaks: CF B.J. Upton will be in Los Angeles this week for a spot in an ESPN commercial promoting its Sunday night schedule — which the Rays aren't part of. Also in the works is a Web site: theuptonbrothers.com, starting with a logo design contest and eventually hosting blogs, videos and contests. … 3B Evan Longoria was in Texas last week shooting a commercial for the MLB 2K10 video game he endorses, offering the first player to throw a perfect game $1 million. "More than me this year!" tweeted Longoria, who has a $950,000 salary.

Prospecting season: MLB.com's top prospects ranking includes four Rays (matching the most of any team): OF Desmond Jennings sixth, RHP Wade Davis 13th, RHP Jeremy Hellickson 20th and SS Tim Beckham 24th. … ESPN.com has six Rays in its top 100 and ranked the farm system third overall: Jennings sixth, Davis 15th, Hellickson 17th, Beckham 29th (down from 11th), 3B Matt Sweeney (acquired from Angels in Scott Kazmir deal) 69th, LHP Matt Moore 81st.

Rays rumblings: RHP Matt Garza joined the Trop workouts in better shape and 5 pounds lighter (at 220), having cut down on soda and junk food (but not his good-luck fried chicken) and upped his cardio workouts. … That sky blue in the new road batting practice cap may show up on a new alternate jersey, too. … Zobrist said he hasn't been told anything about his 2010 position, "so I'm planning on playing everything again." … Upton's golf tournament raised $30,000 for St. Petersburg's Society of St. Vincent DePaul. … Resumes for the open PA job at the Trop can be sent to Lou Costanza, 1 Tropicana Drive, St. Petersburg, FL 33705. … Tickets to the Feb. 17 Governors Baseball Dinner at the Trop are still available. See flasports.com for info.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Expect Tampa Bay Rays to try to upgrade roster despite payroll restrictions 01/30/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 31, 2010 12:31pm]
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