As Rays officials head to Nashville for the annual winter meetings, the predominant issue given the multiple holes in their lineup and surplus of starting pitching is will they or won't they make a trade.
But, really, the better question is when.
If not in the vast biosphere known as the Opryland Resort this week — and Rays officials make a point of saying they feel no pressure to do deals at the meetings — then sometime thereafter.
The Rays have no one on their roster to play first base and no one to DH, and they really could use another outfielder (to join Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce in whatever alignment), and another catcher (so Jose Molina can be a backup), and another reliever or two (with Burke Badenhop traded, and Kyle Farnsworth and J.P. Howell unsigned), and maybe a middle infielder (though maybe not after retaining Ryan Roberts).
Given their usual budget constraints, and with early returns indicating free-agent prices may be even higher than projected, and with some of the second-tier-type players who typically might fall to them being snagged preemptively by other teams, it doesn't seem realistic to think they can fill all their needs without making a big deal.
Executive VP Andrew Friedman still maintains it's not definite that they will trade a starter, suggesting there are scenarios where they can patch and fill from the marketplace and/or make trades that involve other players or prospects.
Maybe, though in either of those cases it's hard to imagine them getting the impact bats they need. (Or maybe they don't and instead press their advantage the other way and look to be as strong pitching-and-defensively as possible.)
To now, much of their focus seems to be on sorting through the trade possibilities, and Friedman said that winnowing alone could make the week a success, "to sift through things that are more real vs. less real." (Kansas City's Wil Myers, Arizona's Justin Upton, Washington's Michael Morse, Chicago's Alfonso Soriano, just to rumor a few.)
It's only logical to not do too much until they get a sense of what the best return could be for James Shields, or Jeremy Hellickson, or Wade Davis, or Chris Archer. Less likely to be dealt would be Cy Young winner David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb or coming-off-injury Jeff Niemann.
To some degree, their moves to complete the lineup will be linked — getting this first baseman means getting that DH, etc. So at some point they have to decide which holes to best fill by trade and which with free agents, then actually start doing it. In years past, they've been more liberal with their money than their players.
"I don't know how to assess the chances (of trading a starter)," Friedman said. "We're obviously having conversations, and that … does play a role in which road we go down, and figuring that out. We certainly don't have to trade one. If we do, it's going to be because we feel like it makes our organization better."
It's a complicated process overall, made even more so by the number of players they need and the fluidity of the inventory — a player may no longer be available or the price may change.
So, what to do?
"There are certain areas we can focus on irrespective of the trades, and there's certain areas we can't move as quickly in until we sort that out," Friedman said. "But we have enough areas to address that they're not mutually exclusive. I would expect we fill some of our needs via trade, and not necessarily for one of our starting pitchers, and some via free agency. And obviously I don't know the breakdown yet."
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Rays-ing possibilities As the Rays decide a course of action, we look, and guess, at some options:
The field: There are not a lot of good free-agent choices, especially since the Rays would prefer a smooth fielder. James Loney could be one, non-tendered Mark Reynolds another. Otherwise, the return of Ty Wigginton? Casey Kotchman? Even Carlos Peña? In trade, Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, or Miami's Logan Morrison?
Wild guess: Reynolds
The field: Rays have had trouble finding steady power producers, and preferably one who can also play the field. Most free-agent options come with questions, such as Lance Berkman, Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, even Delmon Young. Or the Return of Luke (Scott). In trade, Kansas City's Billy Butler or Chicago's Alfonso Soriano might be it.
Wild guess: Soriano
The field: Desmond Jennings' athleticism allows them to look for either a corner guy or centerfielder, so they have lots of options. The trade market is topped by Justin Upton, Michael Morse and Dexter Fowler. Affordable free agents may start with Cody Ross, Scott Hairston, Ichiro Suzuki and Ryan Ludwick and include the likes of Andruw Jones and injury-plagued Jason Bay.
Wild guess: Ludwick
The field: Slim free-agent pickings after A.J. Pierzynski and Mike Napoli, with the "top" choices non-tendered Geovany Soto or Jesus Flores, or, could it be, ex-Ray Kelly Shoppach? If they'd trade intra-division, Toronto has at least one — J.P. Arencibia or John Buck — to spare.
Wild guess: Flores
RHP Jeff Niemann, sidelined by shoulder issues in his Sept. 1 return from a broken leg, said he's "feeling great" and definitely will be ready for the start of spring training. … Though he'll turn 38 shortly after his newly extended contract ends in 2023, 3B Evan Longoria said he wouldn't rule out signing on to play longer. … Much of the talk was that the Marlins' big trade hurt the Rays by reducing their chances for a new stadium, but principal owner Stuart Sternberg said, "The Blue Jays have a lot of really good players, so I think that's the main effect." … Jeff Keppinger's broken leg could be a break for the Rays, if it scares off other free-agent suitors and lowers his price. … Ex-Ray/new Braves CF B.J. Upton didn't hide his glee when asked about getting off the Trop's artificial turf. … Manager Joe Maddon tweeted his thanks to Upton: "We couldn't have become the Rays without you."
Rays offseason so far …
• Picked up 2013 options on RHP James Shields ($10.25 million), RHP Fernando Rodney ($2.5 million), C Jose Molina ($1.8 million).
• Declined option on DH Luke Scott, paying $1 million buyout
• Re-signed free-agent RHP Joel Peralta (two years, $6 million)
• Extended 3B Evan Longoria, above, for 10 years, $100 million with 2023 option
• Lost CF B.J. Upton, who signed with Braves
• Non-tendered OF Ben Francisco
• Traded RHP Burke Badenhop to Brewers for minor-leaguer
• Remaining free agents: RHP Kyle Farnsworth, Francisco, LHP J.P. Howell, INF Jeff Keppinger, 1B Carlos Peña, Scott
• Arbitration eligible: OF Sam Fuld, OF Matt Joyce, RHP Jeff Niemann, LHP David Price, INF Ryan Roberts, INF Sean Rodriguez
Top free agents
OF Josh Hamilton, Rangers Likely '13 team: Rangers
RHP Zack Greinke, Angels Likely '13 team: Dodgers
OF Michael Bourn, Braves Likely '13 team: Phillies
1B/OF Nick Swisher, Yankees Likely '13 team: Red Sox
Big deals so far
• SS Jose Reyes, LHP Mark Buehrle, RHP Josh Johnson, INF Emilio Bonifacio, C John Buck acquired by Blue Jays in mega-trade with Marlins
• CF B.J. Upton signed 5-year, $75.25 million deal with Braves
• OF Torii Hunter signed 2-year, $26 million deal with Tigers
• LHP Andy Pettitte ($12 million), RHP Hiroki Kuroda ($15 million and Mariano Rivera ($10 million) re-signed by Yankees
• CF Denard Span (Tampa product) traded to Nats from Twins.