For parts of this season, the Rays looked like a mess, most pointedly during the late May/early June 1-14 stretch that manager Joe Maddon repeatedly refers to as the primary reason they are playing meaningless games over the final week of the season for the first time since 2009. So as they leave the Trop field today for the last time this season, the question is what they will look like when they return April 6 to open the 2015 season. Most likely, much the same, as almost the entire squad is under contract or control. But there always are some changes. And it could be particularly interesting this offseason as trades seem the most likely avenue as they seek to reduce payroll while adding a bat to boost an offense that might finish last in the American League in runs.
Maybe it's just a complementary player, maybe a rising young hitter, maybe a gamble on a veteran — Ryan Howard? Alex Rodriguez? — whose team is willing to eat a bad contact.
(They also are expected to work on an extension for Maddon, whose contract expires after 2015. If that doesn't go well, he could be traded.)
The one thing the Rays appear to have, as usual, is myriad options as they work to best optimize their 25-man roster.
And while there is a lot that won't be known until deeper into the offseason, executive VP Andrew Friedman says there is one thing they definitely know:
"We have a chance to be really good again."
Here is a look, positionally, at what they have, and what decisions they face:
James Loney is signed for $7 million in the second of a three-year deal. The Rays are pleased with his defense and .289 average but hoping for a little more production than nine homers and 66 RBIs.
The biggest question on the infield. First the Rays have to decide if they bring back Ben Zobrist, who has a reasonable $7.5 million option. (They will.) Then they have to decide if they would be better off trading him. (They likely won't.) And then they have to decide whether to make him the everyday second baseman, or the everyday leftfielder, or the guy who plays every day at a variety of positions. If Zobrist — who turns 34 in May — isn't at second, Nick Franklin probably has the best chance to be, maybe in a platoon with Logan Forsythe. Sean Rodriguez's salary, which will exceed $2 million, might surpass his value as a part-timer.
Given that the Rays passed on a chance to trade Yunel Escobar in August, and given their reasons, such as not having a better alternative in-house or finding someone as good for the $5 million he'll get, expect him to be back.
Evan Longoria is there, for $11 million. They're good.
Ryan Hanigan was productive when healthy, with five homers and 34 RBIs in 79 games, and is signed for $3.5 million. The bigger issue is what to do with Jose Molina, who turns 40 in June and is signed for $2.75 million. You would think with as little as Molina did offensively — .178 average and two extra-base hits in 219 at-bats — and an apparent decline in his defense, the Rays would cut ties and eat the salary if they have to. But they have to find an upgrade first.
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There are numerous combinations the Rays could end up with here, depending on what they do with Ben Zobrist and which outfielder(s) they end up trading, most likely Matt Joyce or David DeJesus (who will make roughly $5 million each) or both. Despite Desmond Jennings' disappointing season, and absence from the field the final month, he seems likely to get another (last?) chance to develop into the impact player the Rays project. If he's in center, that could leave Kevin Kiermaier in left and Wil Myers in right — or better the other way around? — and either DeJesus or Joyce as the primary DH. Or Zobrist in left and Kiermaier in right, with Myers as the DH. Or move Jennings to left, with Kiermaier in center and Myers in right. Or, well, you get the idea.
A definite strength with four solid returnees — Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly — and a fifth pretty good one, Matt Moore, due back from Tommy John elbow surgery sometime in June (or late May or early July). The big question is whether to maintain depth and bring back Jeremy Hellickson, at around $4.5 million, and if everything goes well with all the others (which rarely happens), then figure something out when Moore returns. Or, trade Hellickson this offseason (that payroll reduction has to come from somewhere) and gamble that RHPs Alex Colome and Nathan Karns, or a camp invitee like Erik Bedard was this season, can fill in until Moore returns.
The most volatile and least predictable part of the team every year. Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger will be back, and most likely Grant Balfour, who is signed for $7 million and isn't exactly a hot trade commodity after a rough season. Jeff Beliveau and Alex Colome (if not in the rotation) are good bets, too, as they will be out of options. They do have to decide whether to pick up a $2.5 million option on Joel Peralta. From there, the one-three spots will be filled from the group that includes Brandon Gomes (also out of options), Steve Geltz, Kirby Yates, Triple-A standout Adam Liberatore and whomever they bring in. Cesar Ramos seems unlikely to return.
Expect to see more of Rays pre-, in-, postgame reporter Kelly Nash; in addition to returning to Lightning telecasts, she also will be working Magic games. … Besides the official gifts from the Rays, retiring Yankees star Derek Jeter got what manager Joe Maddon described only as "a very nice bottle of wine" from the coaching staff. … Jeff Malm, a 1B/OF who hit double-digit homers 2011-13 in the low minors, is working in the instructional league as a pitcher. … The opening of Maddon's Ava restaurant in South Tampa is now targeted for mid November. … Soot Zimmer seemed genuinely touched that the Tampa Bay BBWAA chapter renamed its top award the Don Zimmer MVP award in honor of her late husband. … Former St. Petersburg Times publisher Jack Lake, who helped launch the initial effort in the 1970s to acquire a team, was named winner of the fourth annual Clutch Hitters Award. … Former Ray Toby Hall will be conducting catching clinics Monday-Thursday this week at the Stance Doctor facility in St. Petersburg; see stancedoctor.com.
Got a minute? Nick Franklin
Best meal you can make?
Anything on a grill.
I don't watch TV, except for ESPN.
Food you hate?
Karaoke song, if you had to?
Ain't No Mountain High Enough.
Probably (super model) Adriana Lima.