PORT CHARLOTTE – Rays officials insisted Sunday they made the best deals they could in a bad market, trading No. 2 starter Jake Odorizzi for an unheralded Class A shortstop prospect and DFA-ing 2017 All-Star Corey Dickerson in essentially a swap for C.J. Cron, as they dumped about $10 million in salary.
But even if they're right about that, which some of their own players were questioning, there is the bigger question of whether they gave away whatever chance they had left to win – or even not lose too much – this season.
Ditching two more veterans who at times were key players, after already trading Evan Longoria and allowing Alex Cobb, Logan Morrison and a half-dozen others to leave as free agents, would seem to further push them in that direction.
"With both of those moves we're not as good as we were 24 hours ago," top starter Chris Archer said. "I'll leave it at that just because there is uncertainty. Young arms could step up. Young bats could step up and fill that position Corey was going to be in.
"But as of today, our team is not quite as good as it was yesterday."
General manager Erik Neander, tiptoeing carefully around dissing the dearly departed, suggested, at the least, that they were no worse off.
That they had enough young arms stockpiled to replace Odorizzi. That, with two other lefty-swinging outfielders in Mallex Smith and Denard Span aboard, they were "more functional" with Cron's right-handed power bat (and glove at first base) than Dickerson. And that they gained needed "financial flexibility," which could allow the addition of a bargain bat or just be code for ceding to principal owner Stuart Sternberg's request to cut a payroll pushing $80 million.
Manager Kevin Cash was more blunt:
"I still feel we will be very competitive."
Trading Odorizzi, and his $6.3 million salary, was not unexpected, and the Rays' impressive passel of prospects, plus a plan to go with a four-man rotation into May, mitigates his loss, though his dependability and consistency will be missed.
The surprise was that the Rays could only get the Twins to give up Jermaine Palacios, who wasn't even on Baseball America's organization top 30 prospects lists.
Neander – whose weary look Sunday morning evidenced the time and hard work put into these deals – raved about Palacios' upside with the bat and glove, confident the Rays see what others don't. Twins counterpart Derek Falvey provided some cover with the endorsement that Palacios had "a lot of gains to be made."
And Neander insisted that was the very best they could get, given a glut of unsigned free agents, a limited number of trade avenues and their – somewhat debatable – reluctance to wait, fearing the market would get worse or Odorizzi could get hurt.
Still, it didn't seem like enough for a 27-year-old two seasons from free agency who was 40-36 with a 3.81 ERA in 120 starts over the past four years for an AL East team.
"The return is definitely interesting," Archer said. "You would assume a pitcher of his caliber would return something special. And maybe this kid we got is something special. I don't know."
Potentially getting nothing for Dickerson, who rode a sizzling first half into the All-Star starting lineup but fizzled in the second, seemed even a more glaring misstep, even with his $5.95 million salary.
"Perplexing," Archer said.
But the Rays felt given Dickerson's limitations, they gained by breaking up.
First, they figured the seven-day window for resolution either will spur an interested team to make a deal or, worst case, allow them to escape for only $1 million, owing just 30 days' termination to pay off his nonguaranteed contract.
Second, by sending a minor-leaguer to be named to the Angels, they were able to add Cron, whose right-handedness, at first or DH, adds needed balance to the lineup and whose $2.3 million salary is more palatable and additional year (three) until free agency is a plus.
One thing Neander was definitely right about was that it's hard after these deals to say, with a straight face, the team is better.
Sure, the rotation could still be good, and they'll eventually promote some of the young starters with higher upsides than middle-of-a-rotation Odorizzi.
Having Smith running free in left, with Cron sharing DH at-bats with Span (who gets to stay with Dickerson gone) and first base time with Brad Miller, may well produce better.
And there was some merit in getting this settled before Monday's first full-squad workout.
More telling will be how much worse they are. If so, there will be more questions.
For one, should Neander and Co. have not forced the action and waited out the market to get better deals?
For another, should they just cash out and go for the total rebuild, trading Archer, Span, Miller, Kevin Kiermaier, Alex Colome, Wilson Ramos, Steven Souza Jr., Adeiny Hechavarria, Nathan Eovaldi, Sergio Romo, Dan Jennings and any other veteran they can get something for?
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays