Surprising payroll boost allows Tampa Bay Rays to upgrade without dealing assets

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays officials started early in the offseason poring over dozens, even hundreds, of possible combinations to address their primary goal of bolstering their offense without diminishing their defense. As they clicked through screens on their Lenovo laptops and swiped their iPads looking at lists of free agents and trade candidates, projecting the impact on their roster and weighing the cost of acquisition, the one thing they felt pretty sure about was that they couldn't add the players they needed without giving up others they wanted to keep.

But as they prepare for Monday's opening of their 15th spring training, they were able to do precisely that, making an unexpected splurge (relatively speaking) to sign free agents Carlos Peña and Luke Scott for more than $13 million and not trading from their stable of starting pitchers.

"That was one of those scenarios at the beginning of the offseason that we kinda threw to the side as fairly unrealistic," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It was unlikely."

The difference was a decision made — months earlier, it turns out — by principal owner Stuart Sternberg to expand the payroll if needed, the resulting increase of more than 50 percent pushing the opening day total to around $65 million.

It was an investment in optimism: In the team, and in the fans.

"We reacted to what the market had to offer," Sternberg said. "It was clear after last season that to give the 2012 Rays the best chance to succeed, we somehow needed more in the lineup. We had an opportunity to acquire two players who have the ability to make a significant difference.

"Though the payroll number is too high for our means, I was tremendously heartened by the Scarborough numbers (showing the Rays are the area's most popular sports team) and I have faith this could be the year we have some breakthrough at the gate."

The offseason unfolded typically slowly, the Rays — forced to seek below-market deals — tending to do most of their business in January. By New Year's, their only moves were to trade for reliever Burke Badenhop and launch a total catching makeover: letting Kelly Shoppach become a free agent, trading John Jaso, signing veteran Jose Molina. A planned fourth step, adding a proven partner for Molina, remains their one major shortcoming, leaving inexperienced Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos to share time.

By mid January, after signing Fernando Rodney to deepen their bullpen, they were poised for action, targeting a first baseman and a DH, the leading scenario that they'd sign one and trade for the other.

One of Friedman's biggest challenges is judging the timing of the market — how long to look and when to leap. Another is making sure the moves fit together, and within the framework of their existing roster.

Though several young frontline starters had been traded by other teams, the Rays hadn't found the right deal for Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann, leading them back to the free-agent market. And knowing incumbents Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon were still on the market provided some fallback.

Hearing Scott, courted by a dozen teams after being let go by Baltimore, was ready to make a decision, the Rays — linked earlier in the offseason to Josh Willingham, Carlos Beltran and Coco Crisp — went in strong, signing him for $5 million (plus a $1 million buyout/$6 million option).

Sternberg said he had decided amid the frustration of the first-round playoff loss to Texas "that if the opportunity existed we would outspend our means for offense."

He, Friedman and team president Matt Silverman talk, text and email frequently and have regular Monday morning conference calls. But Friedman said he didn't know until they moved on Scott that it would be possible to fill both spots with free agents, so it may be that they just wanted to make sure there wasn't another way.

"We didn't really proceed down that road until January as we went through and exhausted all options," Friedman said, "and went through what we felt like was in the best interest of the organization in both the short term and the long term."

On the first day of free agency, Friedman had called Peña, who starred for the Rays before leaving in the post-2010 exodus (in which the payroll was cut from $73 million to $42 million), to express interest in a reunion. Peña was eager to return, but both sides agreed to see how things played out over the coming months.

With Peña still on the market in late January, and concern that the Tigers, who just lost Victor Martinez to a season-ending knee injury, were prowling, the Rays offered more than they'd planned. Peña, who made $10.125 million with the Rays in 2010 and $10 million with the Cubs last year, took less than expected. And for $7.25 million, they had a deal.

The Rays got the power boost they sought, and with the subsequent signing of Jeff Keppinger (for another $1.525 million), they completed what they feel overall — with a full year from Desmond Jennings, Evan Longoria healthy, more production (one way or another) from shortstop and catcher — will be a significant upgrade to the offense that scored the fewest runs (707) in the AL East.

Doing so without trading Davis or Niemann made it even better. At the least it gives the Rays a trade chip in the event of a spring injury, or a decision to upgrade at catcher or shortstop. But Friedman said the surplus, despite the potential for awkwardness in using the odd man out in relief, could prove extremely valuable, as they've needed at least seven starting pitchers each of the past four seasons.

"With razor-thin margins in this division, maintaining depth and having guys that can pitch successfully in the American League East to start as many of your 162 games as you possibly can is imperative for us to have success," Friedman said.

"I don't know how, or what's going to happen, but I do know we're going to use more than five starting pitchers this year. It might not be the cleanest fit on opening day, but we have to take a long-term view of 162 games. And we feel like we're a much better team with that depth than without it."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

Surprising payroll boost allows Tampa Bay Rays to upgrade without dealing assets 02/18/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 18, 2012 9:24pm]

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