Outlook positive for Tampa Bay Rays to sign a good free-agent hitter

HIS year just gets better: Manager Joe Maddon got one new ring when he married Jaye Sousoures on Nov. 8 in California. He’ll get another, in honor of the Rays’ AL title, in April.

Courtesy of Joe Maddon

HIS year just gets better: Manager Joe Maddon got one new ring when he married Jaye Sousoures on Nov. 8 in California. He’ll get another, in honor of the Rays’ AL title, in April.

The Rays remain "cautiously optimistic" they'll be able to get the kind of big bat they crave for the middle of their lineup, and there are a couple of reasons they feel that way.

One is that the market, though still somewhat unpredictable, continues to look favorable, with at least as many frontline hitters as truly interested teams. They didn't figure to get Raul Ibanez, who went to Philly, and Juan Rivera, who re-signed with the Angels, was considered more of a complementary piece.

It might take until Mark Teixeira (still likely to end up in Boston) and Manny Ramirez sign for the market to be fully defined and players ready to decide, but Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman expects action sooner than later, or by late January anyway.

"We've got a priority order on these guys, and the guys that we feel like fit us extremely well are still on the board and their agents aren't at a point where they're forcing things along," he said. "Depending on who does and at what juncture may expedite things for us depending on where that player ranks."

Jason Giambi still appears the most likely fit, though the A's are ready to begin talks. Milton Bradley remains of much interest, but the Cubs might be tough competition. Bobby Abreu is pricing himself out of their market if he truly expects three years and $48-million. Garret Anderson, Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey are among other possibilities.

The other reason is that they have financial flexibility to be, to use Friedman's word, "competitive" in their bidding.

While the struggling economy has forced some teams to lay off employees, limit spending and even cut payroll, the Rays are managing to proceed as planned.

Team president Matt Silverman said though they are examining expenses and doing some belt tightening, no layoffs or major cuts are expected. (Unlike many companies, the Rays even had their annual holiday party.) Their payroll could increase another 25 percent from last opening day's $43-million to the mid $50-million range.

The Rays were "cash-flow positive" last season, and season-ticket renewals are thus far ahead of 2008, but most vital will be new sales. An ad campaign touting the benefits of season tickets will launch mid January, followed by the standard campaign.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: The search to replace TV analyst Joe Magrane is in the "reviewing of tapes" stage, with hopes of a January conclusion. Tom Paciorek's name has come up. … Renovation of the Port Charlotte spring facility is virtually complete, and it looks great: roomy, modern, fan-friendly, with all kinds of nice touches. There are 5,100 blue seats, plus room for nearly 2,000 more on the berms, outfield deck, tiki bar. …The Reds are talking a lot about free agent Rocco Baldelli, but, even with his improved medical status, it seems a tougher fit for an NL team. … The Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs now have logoed merchandise online at stonecrabsbaseball.com. … New Triple-A hitting coach Dave Myers spent 2001-04 as Seattle's third-base coach. … Former Rays C Josh Paul will manage the Yankees' short-season Class A Staten Island team.

. Fast facts

Aki's wild winter

Akinori Iwamura has had a busy winter in Japan, according to Gaku Tashiro of Sankei Sports, including:

• Trophy presenter for Japan Cup horse race (and bet on the winner!)

• Hometown (Uwajima) parade with 10,000 fans

• Welcome home news conference

• Guest at premiere of movie Blue Bird

• Nike commercial shoot

Outlook positive for Tampa Bay Rays to sign a good free-agent hitter 12/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 4:47pm]

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