FORT MYERS — The Rays were working on finalizing one deal to keep Jason Isringhausen in the organization, though not necessarily on the 25-man active roster. And then they were talking Tuesday about another intriguing possibility, as veteran slugger Gary Sheffield was unexpectedly released by Detroit and expressed interest in coming home to Tampa Bay.
The Rays were seeking a creative way to hang onto Isringhausen, the former All-Star closer who'd provide valuable depth to their bullpen but doesn't want to pitch in the minor leagues.
And they may have found one: adding him to the 40-man roster, and starting to pay his $750,000 salary, but putting him on the disabled list and having him spend a couple of weeks in extended spring training to build strength and improve command, buying time for all parties.
"We see him as being very valuable to our organization, we think he can help us win in 2009, so if he's not on the team from jump street we want to keep him around somehow," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We do not want to lose him. We feel very strongly about that."
Isringhausen sounded optimistic — "We'll figure something out," he said — and agent Dan Horwits expects a resolution today, as the Rays plan to set their roster before breaking camp in Port Charlotte. "I'm optimistic we'll work something out," Horwits said. "Both sides want him to stay in Tampa Bay."
The Rays don't appear to think Isringhausen, who had September elbow surgery, is quite ready to pitch in the big leagues as he has worked six spring innings, allowing four runs on eight hits and a walk. And they don't currently have room in the seven-man bullpen after deciding they need to carry a long reliever. That could be Lance Cormier, or it could be Jason Hammel or Jeff Niemann, whoever isn't named the fifth starter. The other could be traded, with at least a half-dozen teams reportedly expressing interest.
With Isringhausen not wanting to pitch in the minors, they sought a compromise that could also include working out with the Rays; he will accompany them to Philadelphia for their weekend exhibitions.
"Suffice to say, Izzy is not going to accept a minor-league assignment," Horwits said. "Either he's going to be a Ray or he's going to be with another club."
The Rays would have to get even more creative to add Sheffield, the 40-year-old Tampa native who, one homer shy of 500, was released by the Tigers despite a $14 million contract.
He can sign with any team for the major-league minimum $400,000 when he clears waivers Thursday and is talking about the possibility of coming home.
"In his own words, he said he'd have interest in the Rays, and he'd mentioned that before," agent Rufus Williams said. "But it has to present itself. This all happened pretty quick. … There are other teams that have contacted us. There are some very interesting things out there."
Sheffield could add a menacing bat to the already improved lineup, but he would be a tough fit. With Pat Burrell the primary DH, he would have to play rightfield, which would compromise the Rays' defense-first philosophy as well as create a bit of a crowd, though there is some short-term flexibility with centerfielder B.J. Upton sidelined at least the first week of the season. There could also be some concerns about clubhouse chemistry.
Maddon said he had "no idea" how realistic the possibility was, but team officials were talking about it.
"I have so much respect for this guy as a baseball player," Maddon said. "I've gotten to know him a little bit over the last couple years. … I saw him during the offseason, he's in great shape. He's a very strong person. And I like him. Conversationally I really like him. … I consider it a high compliment for a man of that stature to say he wants to play for us. That's what really stands out to me."
Sheffield told Detroit media "it ain't close" to the end of his career and he was confident he could play the outfield. "I have a lot left. I know that," he said. "If one person doesn't think you can play in the field, that's their opinion. I know I can. Nobody understands my body better than me."
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.