LAKE BUENA VISTA — So much of the talk about the Rays is negative because of the long list of players likely leaving. Tuesday, manager Joe Maddon — always optimistic anyway — used his turn before the winter meetings media to point out that what they have left is still pretty good.
And, with the right offseason moves in the bullpen, just maybe still good enough to remain a playoff contender.
"If we could get some kind of a bullpen back together, that would really make all the difference in the world," Maddon said. "That could put us back in the 90-win area, I believe."
Maddon's premise is simple: The Rays still have a starting rotation he considers "among the best in the American League," will continue to be one of the top defensive teams and return some premier players, led by third baseman Evan Longoria.
"Yes, we're going through a little bit of a transition, we're losing a lot of good people," Maddon said during his packed session. "But we still have a lot of good people there. When your core basically is a starting rotation like that, that's not bad. And then you've got this defense on the field, that's pretty good, too. So there's a lot to build around yet, and if we just hit it right this offseason, who knows."
Even from his perpetually positive perspective, Maddon admits it probably will be "very difficult" as they seek to remain competitive after losing leftfielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Peña, closer Rafael Soriano and up to six other prime relievers via free agency (and potentially trade away shortstop Jason Bartlett), and without having much money available, due to a payroll reduction, to properly replace them. And that's without even getting into the improvements by their division foes.
But with a rotation that ranked second best in the AL with a 3.78 ERA last season and that could be enhanced with the addition of top prospect Jeremy Hellickson, and with a defense featuring Longoria at third, B.J. Upton in center and Sean Rodriguez at second, they feel they still have the framework for success.
The issue is how much they can do to improve. Andrew Friedman, the executive vice president in charge of bullpen reconstruction, shared Maddon's view that the opportunity could be there, joking about their "bullpen-to-be-named-later," while pledging to exhaust all possibilities.
"Right now we're an equal opportunity employer — quality and quantity," he said.
While rumors of a deal to send Bartlett to the Orioles for outfielder Nolan Reimold proved unfounded, Friedman indicated he still expected the first move — either a free-agent signing or a different trade — to take place before these meetings adjourn on Thursday. But given the myriad scenarios they have considered, it is likely to be an ongoing process during much of the two-plus months before spring training, and even into the season.
The bullpen isn't the only unknown, as Maddon acknowledged the uncertainly — at least at this point — at several other positions:
• John Jaso could become the everyday catcher, relegating Kelly Shoppach to backup, and Rodriguez and outfielder Matt Joyce could have fulltime jobs rather than as part of platoons.
• Ben Zobrist could move to first base or leftfield or remain part of platoons at second and in the outfield.
• Hellickson could end up back in the minors, but it's more likely the starter who doesn't make the rotation goes to the bullpen.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org