Rays Tales: Is a big bat (Nelson Cruz) the right addition? Or a power arm (Noah Syndergaard)?

The Rays have money to spend and are "considering high-end upgrades."
Nelson Cruz is among the most interesting names the Rays may be talking about. [Times files 2017]
Nelson Cruz is among the most interesting names the Rays may be talking about. [Times files 2017]
Published Dec. 1, 2018|Updated Dec. 2, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are big-name hunting.

They've had internal conversations, expressed interest, reached out — and all the other relevant buzzwords this time of year — on, in and to just about all the obvious free agents and potential trade candidates you'd expect, plus surely a few others, in the bid to improve their 90-win team enough to make the playoffs.

With money to spend, for a change, given a payroll that could be as low as $32 million and flexibility with their roster, Rays officials are talking in terms of  "considering high-end upgrades" and "exploring the top shelf."

That includes top-notch hitters such as Arizona 1B Paul Goldschmidt, free-agent DH Nelson Cruz, Marlins C J.T. Realmuto and the like. (And, sure, though not worth the 1,100 words USA Today devoted to the incredibly far-fetched idea, even Bryce Harper, though on a one-year deal in the very unlikely event he can't find that $300 million-plus long-term pact somewhere).

And also starting pitchers including Mets RHP Noah Syndergaard, free agent RHP Nathan Eovaldi, Giants LHP Madison Bumgarner and more.

After trying unsuccessfully to get anything in trade and then DFA-ing and waiving 30-homer hitting DH/1B C.J. Cron, the Rays seemed focused on finding a better right-handed bat.

The challenge now is making sure the improvement is substantial enough.

To justify not just the investment in money and, if a trade, the players given up, but also the opportunity and playing time taken away from who they have now.

Getting Goldschmidt, an MVP-caliber two-way player, for his last signed year at $14.5 million is one thing, and you find a way to make room. Same with Realmuto, as awkward as that might be after trading for C Mike Zunino.

But say, for example, the best opportunity is to get Cruz for a year at $15 million and plop him and the 37 homers he hit last year at age 38 in the middle of their order as the primary DH.

Sounds good too, right?

But then they likely don't have room for lefty Ji-Man Choi, who posted a .908 OPS vs. right-handers last season, albeit in limited opportunity (196 plate appearances between Brewers and Rays.)

Or, pending how Austin Meadows does in rightfield and Jake Bauers at first base, maybe not lefty Brandon Lowe who, in his final (small sample size alert) 106 plate appearances after a rough start, posted a .924 overall OPS.

Cruz's OPS was .819 vs. right-handers, .850 overall. If Cruz is only an upgrade vs. lefty pitchers (.932 OPS) is he still worth it?

The answer may be to add a righty hitter who can also play defense, either corner infield or outfield, to create more of a rotation, even if he is of lesser repute.

Just adding a big name doesn't mean it's the right move, and the Rays will be wise to keep that in mind. Pat Burrell was a big name. So, too, was Vinny Castilla.

Maybe they're better off with the lower-profile bat and using the acquisition capital to add a top-shelf starter to join Cy Young winner Blake Snell and (they hope) Tyler Glasnow in front of whatever starters/openers combo they settle on.

Syndergaard would sure fit well, making around $6 million in 2019 and not a free agent until 2022, and with hair to challenge RHPs Ryne Stanek and Hunter Wood.

Ideally, the Rays would find a way to do both, add a starter and a hitter. And eventually a closer. For now, they're still looking, able to consider more and better options than usual. This time of year, that's a good problem to have.

Rays rumblings

Not only did Class A Bowling Green win a minors-high 90 games under up-and-coming manager Craig Albernaz, but also Baseball America's minor-league team of the year award. … Minor-league catching coordinator Paul Hoover remains in line to be named field coordinator in filling out Kevin Cash's coaching staff. … Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his former Rays team "made a lot of good moves trade-wise," specifically in getting Glasnow and Meadows in the deal for RHP Chris Archer. … Noting he had an extra month off than planned, Maddon had an interesting European vacation trip, including a Sound of Music tour where he renewed vows with wife Jaye at the famed Austrian church where the von Trapps were wed. … Tony Blengino, a former MLB scout and exec, was one of the few to take major issue with the Cy Young vote, writing for that based on advanced analytics Snell "didn't deserve a sniff" of the award and "it should have been a landslide victory" for Houston's Justin Verlander. … With Hoover promoted and Bill Evers hired by the Twins, the Rays will be replacing two minor-league coordinators. … RHP Merrill Kelly, a 2010 draftee who worked his way to Triple-A before going to Korea in 2015, said he is looking to come back to the majors. … New Jays manager Charlie Montoyo named two players he had on the Rays Triple-A Durham team, RHP Matt Buschmann and OF/DH Shelley Duncan, to his coaching staff. … Not only did the A's unveil drawings for a shiny new proposed ballpark in Oakland, but so did a group in Portland, though with no plans to build until promised a team. … Longtime Dunedin-based Jays exec and current Florida State League president Ken Carson announced is retirement after the 2019 season. … RHP Jose De Leon tweeted the news Friday that he threw off a mound for the first time since March 2018 Tommy John surgery, and is eyeing a 2019 midseason return. … OF Tommy Pham joined the Escogido team Thursday for a month-long stint playing in the Dominican winter league. … Per STATS advanced metrics, Snell had the second most effective curveball in the majors behind Phillies RHP Aaron Nola. … The longer the Rangers hold off in announcing the playoff surface for their new stadium that opens in 2020 the more it seems like they'll pick turf.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.