Winter meetings preview: How the Rays can get what they really, really want

The Rays want to add impact players to push their 90-win team into playoff contention.
Ji-Man Choi is showered at home plate after hitting a two-out, two-run walkoff home run to give the Rays a 6-5 win over the  Indians. (CHRIS URSO | Times)
Ji-Man Choi is showered at home plate after hitting a two-out, two-run walkoff home run to give the Rays a 6-5 win over the Indians. (CHRIS URSO | Times)
Published Dec. 7, 2018|Updated Dec. 7, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have made it abundantly clear what they are planning to do this offseason, adding pieces (plural),  impactful and even reasonably expensive, to the youthful core of their 90-win team enough to reach the playoffs next season.

The challenge now, with the winter meetings starting Sunday in Las Vegas, signings and trades picking up industrywide and spring training less than 10 weeks away, is actually figuring out how.

First, here's a couple things the Rays won't do.

One, while they have money to spend, with the potential to field their
current squad for about $32 million, they are not going to break from past bonds to start throwing millions around haphazardly, or committing to spend up to a specific payroll number, like matching last year's $76 million, just to do so.

Are they willing to take on bigger-name, higher-profile additions than in the past? Yes. Would they pay $15 million plus more for a year, and maybe a second or with an option, the largest salary in team history (David Price, $14 million 2014)? It's doable for the right guy, short term.

But the Rays budget over a rolling five-year period. So what they don't spend now is available later, and vice versa. As much as they benefit currently from having  many young and inexpensive players (only five making $1 million plus), they know banking some money benefits them  when those guys start making more later.

Two, they're not going to make incremental upgrades that clutter the roster, taking away at-bats or innings from young players who stepped up last year, and potentially retarding their development.

The idea is to add impact — a right-handed hitter who can be a legit force in the middle of the  lineup, a starter as sure of a thing as they can find to back Blake Snell while hoping Tyler Glasnow is real deal, a closer to add a known quantity to the stable of young power arms. While the bat, especially after ditching C.J. Cron, seems the top priority, some in the organization say the starter is more vital.

Want to make it a good winter? Sign Nelson Cruz to DH, trade for starter Noah Syndergaard or Trevor Bauer and wait out the relief market for the closer without a job, adding maybe $30 million to the payroll. Or trade for soon-to-be-a-DH Carlos Santana (at a discount) or Jose Martinez, sign Charlie Morton, spend a bit more on the back end of the 'pen and bring on the Red Sox and Yankees. It doesn't have to be this way, but signing one of the big pieces and trading for the other would seem the most sensible model.

There's also some talk internally that if they can't land the right hitter at an appropriate cost (dollars or prospects), they'd be better off rolling out what they have, feeling they already are above average offensively at many spots.
They're confident their young (Willy Adames, Jake Bauers) and previously unproven (Ji-Man Choi, Joey Wendle) players will continue to get better.
And they will benefit from full seasons of Kevin Kiermaier (injured) and Tommy Pham (acquired July 31), plus the addition of catcher Mike Zunino.

In deciding if certain additions are enough of an upgrade, they also may have to wrestle with how much of their current, or future, group to give up in trade.

"The balance that we're trying to strike is making sure we don't rest on our laurels and that we don't walk past opportunities to make the group better and more competitive," senior VP Chaim Bloom said, "but that we also don't get away from what got us here, which was giving opportunities to players who needed the chance to establish themselves and letting them grow and letting them take the next step in their careers."

And also not going  all on for 2019 when the bigger picture plan is to have sustained success.

"We have a club that we think is capable of competing for the postseason and playing in October, and when you have that those opportunities are not to be taken lightly and they are precious and you want to do everything you can to support those chances," Bloom said. "But we also think we're at a point where this group is capable of doing this not just once, but many times. And that's our goal is to be consistently competitive. To do that you also have to look at a multiyear picture. One of the things that goes into that is right now we have a very young and very inexperienced team that we think is very talented. As these players go out and perform, performance gets paid in this game. We have to keep that in mind, too, so we can give ourselves the best chance to keep the group together for the long haul. It's not just about 2019."

But that's a good place to start.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.