NASHVILLE — The Rays came to the winter meetings promising to think big, and they appear to have done so in targeting power-hitting Cubs infielder Javier Baez as the leading trade candidate to boost their offense.
The Rays would trade from their surplus of pitching, likely a starter, if a deal can be made. While Jake Odorizzi — who has been offered a long-term extension — Drew Smyly and even Matt Moore would be logical candidates as the primary return, there is another interesting option in play: right-hander Alex Cobb, who is recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery and won't be back until August.
The interest in a deal between the Rays and Cubs is mutual, but not exclusive, with both teams exploring other options and no resolution imminent as of Monday night. With the Rays looking at what was described as a handful of other opportunities that also would involve pitching — one of the starters and/or relievers Brad Boxberger or Jake McGee — they may be forced to decide whether to try to pursue one bigger deal (with a starter and reliever) or two separate moves (with one of each).
Executive vice president Chaim Bloom said they had "a pretty active day" of discussions — which included principal owner Stuart Sternberg on site at the Opryland resort — and spoke with "a majority" of the other 29 teams.
"If something that happens makes sense for us then of course we're going to be willing to move," Bloom said. "At the same time, we really like our group, we like the talent we have on hand, we like the roster we have."
Though Cobb, 28, missed all of 2015 with the elbow injury that led to surgery, the Cubs are apparently quite interested, banking on the future payoff, and have checked in on his rehab progress.
Certainly manager Joe Maddon, who previously led the Rays, is familiar with Cobb's talent when healthy, and his drive. Cobb will make around $4 million in 2016 and have a full 2017 season before being eligible for free agency. The Rays likely would include another piece in a deal, though not one of the relievers.
Smyly, who came back strong in August after missing much of the 2015 season with shoulder issues, also is of interest to teams, possibly the Rangers. The Astros are among the teams that have expressed interest in the Rays relievers. The Cubs are also talking about Baez to the Braves, and possibly others.
Baez, 23, is exactly the type of young, cost-controlled impact bat the Rays are looking to add, with power to hit 30 homers and the athleticism to play shortstop while still three years from arbitration eligibility and six from free agency.
Though Baez has yet to produce during parts of two seasons in the majors and shows the proclivity to strike out often — a .201 average, 10 homers and 119 Ks in 309 plate appearances — the projections are still positive based on his production in the minors (89 homers in 1,509 at-bats and an .888 on-base plus slugging percentage) since being the No. 9 pick of the 2011 draft and subsequent improvement.
"The bat speed comparisons to Gary Sheffield are real, he has 80 bat speed on the 20-80 (scouting) scale, as much as anybody in the game," ESPN analyst and former GM Jim Bowden said.
"This is a player that has 30-35 home run potential with a chance to be a middle of the order bat for a long time. … He can play shortstop, he can stay at shortstop and he can be a good shortstop. He would be a long-term answer for the Rays at shortstop, and more importantly give them some much-needed power.
"Being not eligible for arbitration, having the control, he would be a huge player for the Rays. I think it would be very difficult for them to land him, but if they could, they should."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.