ORLANDO — The Rays will look to add one or two hitters to their core of returning players, but executive vice president Andrew Friedman's primary challenge for next season has been rebuilding the bullpen.
And from the sound of things during the first day of the annual GM meetings, that chore, which he already classified as "a really difficult task," will be even more difficult.
Word among baseball officials is that setup man Joaquin Benoit and left-hander Randy Choate — two of the incumbents the Rays hoped to retain — are receiving enough interest from other teams that they are expected to join closer Rafael Soriano in leaving as free agents. The demand for both is such that it was described as being "a shock" if either returned.
If both go, the bullpen could be in for a near-total makeover, with the possibility that long man Andy Sonnanstine would be the only returnee on the opening day roster. Three other relievers are free agents, Grant Balfour, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler (after the Rays declined a $4 million option), and Lance Cormier could be a fourth if the Rays decide to not tender him a contract.
Of that group, Balfour could be most likely to return. Interest in him is tempered since he is classified a Type A free agent, which means that if the Rays offer him arbitration by next Tuesday's deadline a team that signs him would have to give up a top draft pick. If Balfour accepts arbitration, he is a signed player, with a raise from his $2.05 million salary to be determined.
Friedman, without discussing specifics, acknowledged the task ahead.
"I think over three-four years we've made five really good bullpen moves, but that's over four years," he said. "So basically we're tasked with trying to replicate that in one offseason. It's going to be difficult. Without knowing exactly how things are going to unfold, it's difficult enough when you're returning guys; to go out and replenish, it's going to be challenging."
Even more so because of the potent offenses of their divisional foes, putting "a premium on guys with really good stuff," Friedman said.
Like with the bullpen, the Rays — with their payroll coming down from $73 million to the $50 million range — aren't in a position to set the market in signing (or in the case of Carlos Peña, re-signing) the two hitters they seek as first base/DH/corner outfield types, so it may be a winter-long process.
"I think we can get creative and add 1-2 bats that will help us, help balance us offensively," Friedman said. "I don't mean to minimize the difficulty in doing do, I'm just more optimistic on that front than I am on the bullpen because inherently it's difficult to build a good bullpen, and to do so when you're looking to add four-five guys it makes it that much more difficult."
While there is no sympathy among competitors, Friedman's colleagues have certainly taken note of his challenge.
"We've been kidding with him, joking with him about that," Oakland's Billy Beane said. "Andrew will provide a road map for any of us who lose their bullpen."
"In my past experience, if anybody can do it Tampa can," Baltimore's Andy MacPhail said. "They pretty much did it last year with Benoit and Soriano, so, regrettably, I have a lot of confidence in their ability to change on the fly."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com