Rays officials head to Disney for this week's winter meetings admitting they don't know what they're doing. Wait — that's not exactly right. It's more that they don't know what they're going to do.
Having spent months collecting info and discussing options while eagerly waiting for the non-Ohtani/Stanton portion of the off-season to begin, Rays officials say they are open to "anything and everything,'' have several plans in place and that feedback from the market will determine their path.
They're going to trade at least a couple of their bigger-named, higher-salaried players, ceding ownership's request to cut payroll. Then, based on what they can get back and what their realistic chances are to compete for a playoff spot, determine whether to keep going and commit to an extensive makeover of their roster rather than their typical re-tooling.
That would put in play just about anyone making substantial money, including franchise faces such as 3B Evan Longoria, RHP Chris Archer and (albeit less likely) CF Kevin Kiermaier. Previous All-Stars such as closer Alex Colome, OF/DH Corey Dickerson and catcher Wilson Ramos. Key pieces like Jake Odorizzi and Adeiny Hechavarria.
If they don't feel they can keep up with the Red Sox and Yankees — even more challenging now with Giancarlo Stanton headed to New York — and aren't confident in their chances, or the value, in spending the whole season chasing the second wild card, then why not?
Sure there'd be a PR hit, frustration among their core fans and more reasons for others who don't come anyway to justify staying away.
But with a crop of promising prospects finally coming through the upper levels of the rebuilt farm system, this —for the first time in the Rays era — may be the right season to take a big step back, to trade veterans to supplement what they hope is the making of a championship core, banking the financial savings for a better shot a year or a few down the road.
"It's timing,'' GM Erik Neander said. "When you are a smaller market team it's not something where I think every year you can go in —you've got to be very precise with your steps. You've got to hit it right. You can't go in every year with the goal to compete and just to spend your way out of it.''
There are some players they could trade and still feel they have a good-enough chance to pivot and still try to compete. For example, dealing Dickerson, Odorizzi, infielder Brad Miller and reliever Dan Jennings would shave around $20 million. But, apart from Odorizzi, there's not likely to be a lot of calls on that group, and certainly not initially.
The interest, and the better offers, naturally, are going to be about the players that would leave bigger voids. If those deals come together sooner it will push the Rays to keep going and be aggressive in trading.
Colome seems certain to go, and there are the usual bevy of calls about Archer. Longoria is a wild card, as this is the first time the Rays would seriously consider dealing him. There are rumblings of interest from the Cardinals and Giants as Plan B to Stanton, with likely more (Angels? Mets?) to come.
The Rays usually are more talk than action during the offseason, but this year looks to be different. They just have to decide how far to go.
The to-trade list
Here's our ranking of which Rays are most likely to go and why:
1) RHP Alex Colome
Savings: Projected $5.5 million, first of three arbitration seasons, free agent in 2021.
Chatter: His 84 saves over the last two seasons are most in the AL, but he wasn't as good in 2017. The Rays typically do not invest much money in a closer, having 11 different saves leaders over 12 years until Colome repeated last season. Limited options on the free agent market make Colome — with three years of control — appealing. The Cardinals are among the most interested, and have the prospects — which they now don't need to use in a Stanton deal.
Replacements: Prospects Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Jaime Schultz, Ryne Stanek; late off-season free-agent sign who takes opportunity over money.
2) RHP Jake Odorizzi
Savings: Projected $6.5M, second arbitration year, FA in 2020
Chatter: The Rays trade a starter almost every year. It looks to be Odorizzi's turn, his salary exceeding their value for him, especially given the in-house replacements. Inconsistency, minor injuries and bad fortune hurt his numbers, but there is still ample interest for two years of control. He loves the NL game, and St. Louis is home.
Replacements: Jake Faria, Austin Pruitt; prospects Brent Honeywell, Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough
OR 2A) RHP Chris Archer
Savings: $6.25M in '18, $33.75M total with options through 2021
Chatter: More market appeal than Odorizzi but also more value to the Rays with four years of control at team-friendly salaries. He'd have to bring twice the return of Odorizzi. And more than Matt Garza, who the Rays traded to the Cubs in 2011 for a package of five prospects — that included Archer. Teams now seem less reluctant to give up big hauls of young players. The gamble for the Rays is whether Archer will take the long-awaited step forward and be worth more, to them or others, in the future.
Replacements: Faria, Pruitt; prospects Honeywell, Chirinos, Yarbrough
3) 3B Evan Longoria
Savings: $13.5M in '18, $94M total with an option through 2023
Chatter: Longoria is a special case because of how much he has meant to the Rays and the commitments he made in twice signing long-term below-market deals. The field of teams having a need and willing to take on his money is limited, and the Rays may be picky, even consulting with him, trying to find an appealing contender (and then framing the deal as doing him a favor). A factor, though not necessarily huge, is that he gets no-trade rights in April as a 10-and-5 player. Though coming off a down year offensively, his thrice-gold glove still plays.
Replacements: Matt Duffy, Daniel Robertson, prospect Willy Adames
4) C Wilson Ramos
Savings: $10.5M, FA in 2019
Chatter: The Rays signed Ramos last winter when he was rehabbing from knee surgery with the idea of getting something for him, either in trade or free agent compensation. The issue is whether the glimpses he showed at the end of '17 are enough to get full value.
Replacement: Free-agent or trade acquisition.
5) SS Adeiny Hechavarria
Savings: Projected $5M, third arbitration year, FA in 2019
Chatter: Pending free-agency means he'll be dealt at some point this year, but would be a good placeholder until Adames is deemed ready during the season.
Replacements: Duffy, Robertson, Adames.
6) LF/OF Corey Dickerson
Savings: Projected $6.4M, second arbitration year, FA in 2020
Chatter: 2017 first-half Dickerson was a break-out All-Star (hitting .330 with 17 HRs, 39 RBIs, .940 OPS), second-half Dickerson was a dud (.228, 10, 23, .663). Knowing which one will show up will drive the market.
Replacement: Mallex Smith; prospects Jake Bauers, Justin Williams.
7) INF Brad Miller
Savings: Projected $4.4M, second arbitration year, FA in 2020.
Chatter: Similarly, 30-homer Miller of 2016 is much more valuable to keep than 9-homer Miller of 2017. October core muscle repair surgery could be the answer but also could limit interest until teams see him on the field.
Replacements: Duffy, Robertson, Adames
8) CF Kevin Kiermaier
Savings: $5.5-million in '18; $60M total with an option through 2023.
Chatter: Premier defender will be in higher demand than others, but least likely to be dealt given recent long-term deal. Also, coming off second straight injury-abbreviated season.
Also on the agenda
* Even before trading any veterans, the Rays already have several glaring openings they need to fill somehow, starting with first base and the bullpen.
* Among nine players who left the Rays as free agents and still seeking new homes are RHP Alex Cobb (Cubs and Yankees have been rumored), 1B/DH Logan Morrison, and RHPs Steve Cishek and Tommy Hunter.
* With Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani on Friday picking the Angels and the Marlins (finally) making a deal to trade Stanton (to the Yankees), the rest of the stalled free agent and trade market should finally kick into gear.
Though it didn't get them to the second round in pursuit of Ohtani, senior VP Chaim Bloom said the Rays were "really proud overall" of their initial presentation. Still think they could have made an interesting pitch based on their two-way arrangement with Brendan McKay. ... INFs Matt Duffy, who missed all of last season due to left heel issues, and Brad Miller, who had October core muscle repair surgery, are expected to be fully healthy at the start of spring training. ... RHP Cody Hall, who has big-league time with the Giants and Marlins, was signed to a minor-league deal with a spring invite, having been clocked last season at 99-100 mph. ... Kevin Cash kicks off the meetings manager interviews at 9 a.m. Monday. ... Interesting ending to the Rays contractual relationship with Centerplate, a 31-page lawsuit seeking millions in damages. .... RHP Brent Honeywell was No. 1, INF Willy Adames and McKay third in Baseball America's new Rays prospect rankings, with 1B/OF Jake Bauers fourth and OF Jesus Sanchez fifth. ... The Rays have interest in some of the former Braves international signees who recently were made free agents by MLB. ... The Fox Sports Sun crew won a Suncoast Emmy for its Rays "Demo Day" programming.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays