The pace, and direction, of the Rays' offseason could change with one phone call, most dramatically with a deal to trade one of their sought-after starters, with the clues coming in whether the pieces they get are for the present or future.
To this point, their extensive work and myriad conversations haven't led to much, the initial price of free agency a sobering, if not staggering, reminder that their best chance to improve will come via trades or late winter leftovers.
The Rays had legitimate interest in Jason Castro as a multiyear solution to their catching abyss, appreciating his pitch-framing skills and the positive platoon benefit of his lefty bat. But not at anywhere near the $24.5 million over three years he got from the Twins.
Similarly, they may have had a fit to boost their bullpen with good-but-not-great lefty Brett Cecil, who toiled in middle relief for Toronto. Until Cecil got a four-year, $30.5 million deal from the Cardinals anyway.
As shocking as some of these early offseasons deals are, GM Erik Neander said it's important for the Rays to keep perspective.
"Early offseason signings are typically the result of a very competitive market for those players," he said. "Sometimes it's difficult to contend with that, but not always. Our job is to be prepared, try to do our evaluations correctly, wait for the right opportunity to arise and be in position to strike when it does."
For example, while they have considerable interest in bringing back Steve Pearce, whose market is impacted by his rehab from elbow surgery (though he is expected to be ready by opening day), they have other options at a right-handed DH and occasional first baseman, such as Trevor Plouffe, who was dumped by the Twins, and even former Cardinals star Matt Holliday.
Another possibility, in more of a DH/backup OF mode, is lefty-hitting Eric Thames, who is eyeing a return to the majors after three big seasons in Korea.
They still need a catcher, and without much besides one-year stopgaps on the free agent market, they will continue looking earnestly at trades for a longer-term solution, along the lines of up-and-comers Austin Barnes (Dodgers), Austin Hedges (Padres), Andrew Knapp (Phillies) or Blake Swihart (Red Sox).
For the 68-win Rays, there remains a lot of work to be done.
TENDER TIME: Dec. 2 — assuming either a new labor deal or an extension of current rules — is the nontender deadline, when teams dump arbitration-eligible players into the free agent pool rather than pay them the going rate.
The Rays, though, seem likely to tender contracts to all of what looks to be an MLB-high 11, assuming INF Tim Beckham and OF Kevin Kiermaier make the Super Two service time cutoff, with the group's projected salaries totaling around $35 million, led by LHP Drew Smyly at $7 million. Also on the list: 1B Brad Miller, OF Corey Dickerson and pitchers Brad Boxberger, Xavier Cedeno, Alex Cobb, Danny Farquhar, Jake Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez.
Of benefit to the team would be more catchers, relievers or outfielders becoming available.
RAYS RUMBLINGS: RHP Steve Geltz's designated for assignment limbo ends early this week with word if he is claimed or clears waivers and, if so, elects free agency, which seems likely. … OF Jaff Decker, who played in 19 games for the Rays, signed a minor-league deal with Oakland. … Cubs World Series MVP and former Ray Ben Zobrist was among People magazine's Men of the Year for helping usher in a "sensitive era of sexiness." … 1B coach Rocco Baldelli is touting girlfriend Allie Genoa's new jewelry business at uplandcollection.com. … Though Manny Ramirez's career ended in PED disgrace with the Rays, it will be interesting to see how he fares among Hall of Fame voters in his first time on the ballot. … Check tampabay.com/blogs/rays for what it is either Double-A Montgomery's best or worst new hat design. … Saber-rattling over a lockout is predictable as labor negotiations head to Thursday's deadline, but there is too much prosperity in the game, and options such as an extension, to inflict such damage, right?
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected].