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Tampa Bay Rays' search for offense may begin at winter meetings

The Rays insist they don't put any greater emphasis on getting deals done at the annual baseball winter meetings, which open today in Dallas. They've actually made trades at each of the past four get-togethers — ditching Elijah Dukes in '07, getting Matt Joyce in '08 and Rafael Soriano in '09, agreeing to the Jason Bartlett deal last year — but tend to let the market, especially for free agents, play out a bit before doing the bulk of their business.

At some point in the next few days or weeks or months, however, they're going to have to make at least a couple of tough decisions.

While executive VP Andrew Friedman keeps saying it's possible they will bring back both DH Johnny Damon and 1B Casey Kotchman, that doesn't make sense if they are determined to improve an offense that scored the fewest runs in the AL East. The Rays loved Kotchman's defense and Damon's clubhouse presence (and liked the versatility he provided in playing the field), but they got only 26 homers and 121 RBIs total from them, which just isn't enough.

To truly improve the offense, they'll have to move on and upgrade at least one of those spots — unless they find more offense elsewhere, such as an unexpected move for a top shortstop or catcher. Or, despite downplaying it, trading CF B.J. Upton (the Nationals are still interested) and re-investing the $7 million he'll make through arbitration for other hitters.

Similarly, Friedman claims they aren't looking to trade any of their eight starting pitchers, and if they get to Port Charlotte with all of them it'd be "a phenomenal problem." But reality is they have too many other needs (and there are so many other teams that need pitching) not to trade at least one, with RHP Wade Davis probably atop their list, and RHP Jeff Niemann next. And as much as RHP James Shields means to them (and as badly as he wants to stay), they'd have to at least listen on multiplayer offers for him, especially with his salary increasing to $8 million (and LHP David Price in the $5 million range).

Friedman says it's still early in the process for them, but — sooner or later — the decisions have to be made.

Rays-ing possibilities Some ideas for the Rays to explore:

• Sign homer-hitting and slick-fielding former Rays 1B Carlos Peña (at a reduced rate) and bring back Damon to DH.

• Sign the best DH, David Ortiz, to a one-year deal (at an even more reduced rate) and keep Kotchman. Or on a lesser level, Vladimir Guerrero. Or Hideki Matsui.

• Trade RHP Wade Davis (or RHP Jeff Niemann) to Reds for 1B Yonder Alonso. (Or expand the deal on both sides and get either C Yasmani Grandal or Devin Mesoraco.) Or trade one of the pitchers to the Marlins for 1B/OF Logan Morrison and OF/INF Chris Coghlan.

• Sign a lesser name to DH and fill in around the field such as Josh Willingham or Jason Kubel. And pick up a reclamation project such as A's 1B Daric Barton or Rockies INF Ian Stewart.

Rays so far ...

Added

C Jose Molina, signed for $1.5 million

Role: Part-time, potentially full-time, starter.

Added

RHP Josh Lueke, in trade from Seattle

Role: Compete for spot in bullpen

Deleted

C John Jaso, traded to Seattle for Lueke

Undecided

Allowed to be free agents

DH Johnny Damon

1B Casey Kotchman

C Kelly Shoppach

RHP Juan Cruz

1B Dan Johnson

Summary: Damon and Kotchman remain "very much in the discussion" to return. … Shoppach, whose $3.2 million option was declined, remains a possibility at a (much) lower price. … Cruz, a bargain last season at $850,000, seems to have served his purpose. … They just need to have Johnson around for September.

Potential nontenders

RHP Andy Sonnanstine

LHP J.P. Howell

Arbitration eligible

CF B.J. Upton, LHP David Price, RHP Jeff Niemann, RHP Joel Peralta

Rays rumblings

GM Jack Zduriencik e-mailed that the Mariners "have had no issues" with Josh Lueke, the reliever acquired in trade who had legal issues earlier in his career. … RHP Jhonny Nunez, a 26-year-old who had '09 time with the White Sox and has been mostly at Triple A, signed a minor-league deal. … Rays exec VP Andrew Friedman said new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine "is as bright of a baseball mind as I've encountered." … The Rays may play their minor-leaguers in the April 4 Trop exhibition. … Manager Joe Maddon serves his Thanksmas meal to the needy for a sixth straight year, with dates in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Bradenton Dec. 12-14. … Durham's Neil Solondz and Montgomery's Joe Davis are among the candidates to take over as pregame/postgame radio host. … The Astros have leaked that they've interviewed Bill Geivett (Rockies) and Jeff Luhnow (Cards) for their GM job, but there has been nothing on Friedman. … Whatever the result of the federal investigation into the Marlins stadium, it can't be helpful for the Rays' efforts.

National perspective

Top available position players

Albert Pujols, 1B (Cardinals): Likely '12 team: Cardinals

Prince Fielder, 1B (Brewers): Likely '12 team: Cubs

Jose Reyes, SS (Mets): Likely '12 team: Marlins

Michael Cuddyer, INF/OF (Twins): Likely '12 team: Twins

Carlos Beltran, OF (Giants): Likely '12 team: Red Sox

Top free agent pitchers

C.J. Wilson, LHP (Rangers): Likely '12 team: Nationals

Mark Buehrle, LHP (White Sox): Likely '12 team: Marlins

Edwin Jackson, RHP (Cardinals): Likely '12 team: Orioles

Roy Oswalt, RHP (Phillies): Likely '12 team: Rangers

Ryan Madson, RHP (Phillies): Likely '12 team: Red Sox

Top trade candidates

RHP Matt Garza (Cubs)

LHP Wandy Rodriguez (Astros)

LHP John Danks (White Sox)

1B Yonder Alonso (Reds)

RHP Jair Jurrjens (Braves)

Done deals

Biggest signings

RP Jonathan Papelbon: $50M/4 years, Phillies (from Red Sox)

RP Heath Bell: $27M/3 years, Marlins (from Padres)

RP Joe Nathan: $14.5M/2 years, Rangers (from Twins)

SS Clint Barmes: $10.5M/2 years, Pirates (from Astros)

OF David DeJesus: $10M/2 years, Cubs (from A's)|

New managers

Red Sox — Bobby Valentine

Cubs — Dale Sveum

Cardinals — Mike Matheny

White Sox — Robin Ventura

Marlins — Ozzie Guillen

For updates from the meetings check tampabay.com/blogs/rays and follow SPTimesRays on Twitter.

Tampa Bay Rays' search for offense may begin at winter meetings 12/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 7:33pm]
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