ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have an American League pennant to hang and fewer holes to fill than ever, but they still have a lot to do.
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman heads to the winter meetings next week in Las Vegas saying their "two biggest focal points" are improving their offense (at rightfield and/or DH) and strengthening their bullpen.
They're more likely to consider free agents than in the past, including some more established veterans on short-term deals. They don't feel they have to make a trade despite an abundance of starting pitching, which means rookie sensation David Price could open the season in the minors and Jeff Niemann in the bullpen. They say they're still open to re-signing free agent outfielder Rocco Baldelli.
And, like everyone else, they don't know how much the struggling economy will affect their business, but they are trying — so far unsuccessfully — to take advantage of the current stagnant market.
Oh, yes, they're also going to be the first team to open an academy in Brazil, hoping to eventually mold that country's extraordinary athletes into baseball players.
Some excerpts of Friedman's Thursday media session:
On the likelihood of acquiring a front-line rightfielder:
Hard to say. Our focus is on improving our offense, whether that's at the DH spot, rightfield, whatever it is. We'd like to add a guy that improves our offense. There's certainly a lot of names out there. There's guys in the free agent market that we're talking to. There's trades options as well. It's something we're going through to try to find the best fit and if we can find something that does, obviously we'll be aggressive to add that. That and strengthening our bullpen are our two biggest focal points this offseason.
On whether "offense" means "power":
Not necessarily. It depends. Run production comes in different ways, there's foot speed and defense, we're not necessarily tied to any one attribute. But all things being equal, we'd like to add some power.
On whether they'd add both a DH and a rightfielder:
I don't think it's realistic to add two impact-type guys. It may be two, with one we feel helps our offense tremendously and another one who fits in well as an interchangeable part who complements the rest of our guys well. That said, in an ideal world we'd like to add two but it's probably just not that realistic with the guys who are out there and also factoring in the rest of our personnel.
On looking more at signing a free agent or making a trade:
I'd say we're a little more focused on the free agent market than we have in years past. Some of that has to do with having less players to trade, per se. … It doesn't mean we're going away from the trade front, but in years past it was 80-20; I think it's now something more in the 50-50 range.
On how the economy will affect the game:
I'm not smart enough to know. The conversations have been just as frequent as they've been in years past, but with both agents and teams we're finding there aren't very many people who want to be aggressive and really force things ahead. I think everybody's kind of sitting back a little bit trying to figure out the effect the economy will have on teams, and as a result, inertia has set in a little bit. Agents don't necessarily want to do a deal now that in January looks foolish and, conversely, teams don't want to do something now that in January … as teams are getting a better sense of what their resources are as December comes and goes and as you get into January and you get a much better sense for renewals and season-ticket base and all those different things, it definitely does have an impact. And I think a lot of people aren't sure what's going to happen, which is almost more paralyzing than knowing one way or the other what is going to happen.
On whether, with other teams being cautious, might the Rays try instead to be aggressive and make offers now:
We always have to try to be opportunistic, whatever the opportunity is. If we felt like there was an opportunity to do something sooner rather than later, whereas in years past we've tended to wait a little bit, then we would, but we're not having much luck thus far getting people to respond to trying to move things ahead.
On not feeling the need to trade a starting pitcher despite an apparent surplus:
We're pleased to have the depth that we have. … I don't think we're at that point. I look forward to the time that we do feel that way.
On the possibility of using Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann (who are both out of options) as relievers:
We feel like we'll have room in the bullpen to be able to do that, and we feel like both Niemann and Hammel have a chance to make an impact in the bullpen and then provide great depth in the rotation.
On whether rookie David Price will be in the rotation:
I certainly wouldn't say he's penciled in there — we have five incumbents that rightfully so should be penciled in. Whether or not that changes remains to be seen.
On the status of the three remaining free agents — DH Cliff Floyd (rehabbing his shoulder injury rather than having surgery), OFs Rocco Baldelli and Eric Hinske:
All three were a big part of our success, and we haven't closed the door with any of them. With the lack of movement so far this offseason, it's hard to say exactly what will happen. We've stayed in touch with their agents and will continue to do so
On whether he expects activity to pick up at the winter meetings:
It's my expectation but I don't base it on much but the fact that we've had a hard time moving conversations along and I feel like if something does happen early that it will pick up considerably. But if it continues like it has and that doesn't happen, we may end up spending a lot of time at the craps table.