For a team coming off a disappointing 80-win season, the Rays head to Nashville for this week's winter meetings feeling pretty good about themselves.
They have been unexpectedly busy early in the offseason, though without any marquee additions.
But they are confident the small parts they added — SS Brad Miller, DH/1B/OF Logan Morrison, RH reliever Danny Farquhar, C Hank Conger — can make a big difference. And they are certain they can't have as many injuries as last year (right?), banking on key players who missed large chunks of the season, such as starters Matt Moore and Drew Smyly and LF Desmond Jennings, to be healthy contributors all season long.
So while other teams wander the vast Opryland geodome with specific shopping lists, the Rays will spend a lot of time dreaming country big, creatively concocting complicated multiplayer, several-team transactions that would allow them to make significant improvement by restructuring the team while keeping their payroll as planned to less than last year's $72 million. Yasiel Puig, anyone?
"We don't see a glaring need for the ballclub right now," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "We could go into camp and feel good about the team that we could field and the depth that we would have in the minor leagues.
"That gives us the freedom to explore a number of deals. At this time of year, big deals are explored, many things are talked about, a lot of rumors fly and there is usually very little substance to them. But we certainly have the freedom to explore some of those wild ideas and see if it takes us in a certain direction."
A big reason they are in that position is that they have the one commodity every team desperately wants — quality, cost-efficient pitching.
That's why you have heard about the Astros and others inquiring on relievers LH Jake McGee and RH Brad Boxberger, and will hear more, given how they compare favorably to Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman and other available closer types.
And that's why there will be chatter this week about Smyly, Moore, Erasmo Ramirez, Jake Odorizzi, maybe even still rehabbing Alex Cobb — basically any starter not named Chris Archer or Blake Snell.
Forget ace LHP David Price getting his $217 million. With market prices resulting in a mediocre starter such as LHP J.A. Happ being handed $36 million over three years by Toronto, the Rays can offer some attractive alternatives — Smyly for $4 million in 2016 with two more years of control, Moore for $5 million this season, plus three team-option years for a total of $26 million.
For now, the Rays, who already dealt RHP Nathan Karns, are sounding rightfully reluctant about further trading from their stockpile, Silverman insisting they can't be "too cavalier" as they've seen how "fleeting" depth can be given last year's spate of injuries.
"We don't rule anything out," he said. "But we're very cautious about exposing ourselves and finding ourselves in a position where we don't have the pitching depth and the talent that we need."
But, like anything else, there is always a right price. And that's where the creativity comes in.
Part of the Rays' philosophy, almost to a point of pride, is to say they never have to do anything.
For example, they're perfectly happy to keep both McGee (who will make around $5 million) and Boxberger (a pre-arbitration bargain at around $550,000), knowing how deep that makes the back end of their pen. But if they get offered enough, that duplication could be a luxury better converted to needed assets.
The one deal they certainly would like to make — now, later, in spring training — is trading 1B James Loney, and they would be willing to eat a chunk of his $8 million salary to do so. That would allow them to use Morrison at first and open up a spot to add prospect Richie Shaffer or potentially a more proven bat to the lineup.
So they'll talk this week, about pretty much everything and anything (except, realistically, Archer, 3B Evan Longoria and CF Kevin Kiermaier), and from what it sounds like they would be looking to acquire present-day pieces, not another haul of prospects.
"We look at the club as one that can compete," Silverman said. "And so because we have that confidence in the group and we feel like we have the talent to compete for a playoff spot, we keep a stronger focus on this year.
"But we're always balancing the present and the future, always trying to make sure we have the runway of players and prospects to stay competitive given our financial resources. That factors into the way that we look at trades and the way that we evaluate potential moves. It's never just about the present, it's never just about the future, but it's finding the right balance. If we have too much depth in one particular area we're probably doing ourselves a disservice because that means we're not utilizing it to supplement another area. Given the way we construct our team, given our finances, we don't have the luxury of depth if we want to have the talent across 25 guys to compete."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.