ST. PETERSBURG — The biggest name of the four players not tendered contracts by the Rays on Thursday was reliever J.P. Howell, but it doesn't sound like it will be a big deal as he's expected to be re-signed by next week.
"I'd be shocked if that didn't happen," he said. "I want to be a Ray. It's where I know success. I don't ever want to leave."
Also allowed to become free agents were infielder/DH Willy Aybar and reliever Lance Cormier, both of whom the Rays also have interest in bringing back, and catcher Dioner Navarro, whom they don't. Among the five players tendered was first baseman/DH Dan Johnson.
By nontendering Howell, who is recovering from shoulder surgery that caused him to miss the 2010 season, the Rays can work around the rule that limits salary cuts to 20 percent for returning players. Howell, who made $1.8 million last season, said he understood and appreciated the support the Rays have shown.
The decisions on Aybar and Cormier were made to give the Rays more flexibility (thus more available money) to fill more important roles. "Right now the market is flooded with players … and it's something for us to maintain some flexibility in which way we go, and understanding the different options," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.
Cormier, who was in line for a raise from his $1.2 million, said he'd be open to returning. Aybar, who made $1.35 million, wasn't available.
With Cormier nontendered, seven relievers who threw significant innings last season, and 78 percent of the team's 454 total, became free agents.
Friedman said he expected Johnson to get "a good number of at-bats" in a yet-to-be determined role. As expected, shortstop Jason Bartlett (the subject of trade rumors), right-handers Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine, and centerfielder B.J. Upton were tendered.
Interesting possibilities for the Rays among players let go include outfielder/DH Jack Cust (A's), who led the AL in walks (and strikeouts) 2007-10 while hitting 97 homers; outfielder Matt Diaz (Braves), a former Ray who can hit for power and average and has a career .350 on-base percentage; and right-hander Bobby Jenks (White Sox), who averaged 32 saves the past five seasons.
Potential bullpen candidates, left-hander R.J. Swindle and right-hander Cory Wade, were among five signed to minor-league contracts with spring training invites. Swindle, right-hander Richard De Los Santos and infielder J.J. Furmaniak were at Triple-A Durham last season; infielder Russ Canzler was in the Cubs system; and Wade, who had big-league time in 2008-09 before shoulder problems, with the Dodgers.
Around the majors
RIVERA RE-SIGNS: The Yankees were finalizing a two-year, $30 million deal with closer Mariano Rivera, ESPN reported. Also, the team told shortstop Derek Jeter's agent, Casey Close, that it will improve its original $45 million, three-year offer.
GIANTS: Leftfielder Pat Burrell, picked up after struggling for a year-plus with the Rays, agreed to terms on a one-year, $1 million contract with incentives.
MARLINS: Right-hander Javier Vazquez, 34, finalized a $7 million deal for 2011.
RED SOX: Catcher Jason Varitek, 38, reached a preliminary agreement on a $2 million, one-year contract.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.