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Rays have options for offseason improvement

ST. PETERSBURG — Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon sat behind the microphones after the Rays ended their 2014 season with a disappointing losing record and spoke predictably optimistically about the prospects for improvement. By the end of the month, both had bailed for new gigs.

Matt Silverman and Kevin Cash will sit behind the microphones today after the Rays ended their 2015 season with a disappointing losing record and speak predictably optimistically about the future. If nothing else, their words should be more lasting.

With all that went wrong, and all that didn't seem right, in the first season under new management, the reality is that the Rays didn't have a terrible 2015. Most of the projections and prognostications had them pegged for somewhere in the low to mid 80s for wins, so to log 80 given the injuries and other issues wasn't bad.

But this is a bottom-line business and an immediate gratification world, so the more relevant questions today will be on what they can do to not be answering them at this time next year because they'll be busy preparing for the playoffs.

For example:

How far away are they from being a playoff team?

Though they finished six games out of the second wild card and 13 behind the division-leading Blue Jays, the Rays brass don't think they are far. In short, they feel that with their top starting pitchers being healthy all year, full seasons from a couple of other players who missed time, the natural improvement of their young players who got additional experience and a few moves, they can be right there.

How does the payroll look for '16?

Unlike other teams, the Rays don't, at least publicly, set a specific number, insisting it is flexible. But they also typically end up near the bottom of the 30 teams. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said last month that "in a perfect world" they would be "able to maintain" this year's $72 million despite finishing last in attendance again, but that was "not overly likely."

Between the 11 players under multiyear deals and those eligible for arbitration likely to return, they look to have about $52 million already committed. Even if they filled out the rest of the roster with pre-arbitration players making near the minimum, they would be looking at around $60 million without any veteran additions.

What are their biggest needs?

Their biggest hole will be at shortstop, where Asdrubal Cabrera is leaving as a free agent. The primary internal candidates are Tim Beckham and Nick Franklin, neither of whom has played a full season in the majors nor made even two dozen starts at short. Of even less experience are prospects Daniel Robertson, who played this season at Double A, and Taylor Motter, who was a Triple-A All-Star utility man.

Though they don't want to create a block, especially with more shortstop prospects coming, they could be open to a Cabrera-like one-year deal if another veteran, such as Ian Desmond or Jimmy Rollins, becomes available.

Next will be a DH. John Jaso, though eager to explore the market as a first-time free agent, has interest in coming back. But the Rays may be better served finding more of a home run hitter, preferably a left-hander to join Evan Longoria and Logan Forsythe. "It would be nice to have a serious power threat to protect Longo and Logan," ace Chris Archer said. "Really nice."

Beyond that? The bullpen can always use another proven arm. (Maybe Kevin Jepsen? Too soon?) And they seem to be always looking for a long-term answer at catcher, though Curt Casali may be that guy for now.

Whom could they trade?

Because they are the Rays, the answer is just about anybody. Save for Archer, centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier and Longoria, anyway.

Young starting pitchers are about the hottest commodity in the game, and the Rays a) tend to have them and b) are not shy about dealing them. As much as their depth was tested by a string of injuries this season, the Rays seem likely to make a deal as they have eight legit starters — Archer, Matt Moore, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez, Nathan Karns, Matt Andriese and prospect Blake Snell, plus the potential to re-convert relievers Alex Colome and Enny Romero if needed, and with Alex Cobb due back in August.

They also have a surplus of outfielders, what with Kiermaier, Steven Souza Jr., Brandon Guyer, Mikie Mahtook and possibly Richie Shaffer. But any moves there are predicated on how much can they count on Desmond Jennings. Enough to play every day? Enough to be able to be traded in spring training?

The player they'd like most to deal has to be first baseman James Loney, who is due $8 million in the final year of his three-year deal after hitting .280-4-32 this year with a .680 OPS. Maybe they can package him with a starter or, if a team was really giving, in a deal for one of their closers, Brad Boxberger or Jake McGee?

Will it be a busy offseason?

It can't be as busy as last, when Silverman took over, hired Cash then shuffled nearly half the roster. Then again, he already said they are "well-positioned for the active dialogue that will take place."

NOTES: Second baseman Logan Forsythe is the Rays' nominee for the Hank Aaron award given to the top offensive performer in each league. … Right-hander Nathan Karns said at the Trop on Monday that the forearm tightness that led to him being shut down won't require any rehab or adjustments to his offseason workout schedule.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Rays have options for offseason improvement 10/05/15 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2015 9:36pm]
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