By this time next week, the Rays officially can commence building for next season.
Though they usually proceed at a measured pace, with a big-picture strategy of improving their offense while maintaining their dominant pitching, some decisions have to come sooner than later due to the MLB calendar.
Within three days after the end of the World Series, they must decide on the four options they hold:
RHP Fernando Rodney, at $2.5 million, is an automatic yes, as is RHP James Shields at $10.25 million, whether it's to keep him or trade him (which will be a winterlong theme). Though DH Luke Scott produced some when healthy (.229/14/55 in 344 PAs), $6 million seems too much to commit, so he looks like a no.
That leaves C Jose Molina as the big decision. And though he didn't hit much (.223/8/32), his work with the pitchers was strong and for $1.8 million (actually $1.5 million since there's a $300,000 buyout), Molina might be, at the least, a worthwhile fallback as they, once again, have their annual search for a frontline backstop.
Free agency is next, with teams having five days after the Series ends to negotiate with their own, and the market opening on the sixth.
"We are busy going through the potentially available names this winter that may fit the core group of players that we are constructing our 2013 roster around," executive VP Andrew Friedman said.
Though they usually don't jump into the market early, under the new rules they do have one major decision in the first five days: whether to make a qualifying offer (one year for $13.3 million) to CF B.J. Upton, which would net them a compensatory draft pick when he signs elsewhere.
Friedman and agent Larry Reynolds have talked, and it's easy to imagine they were feeling each other out: The Rays seeking a sense he won't take the offer (which would jolt their payroll); Upton's side being coy since the offer increases his cost to a signing team because it loses a draft pick.
Most likely scenario: The Rays make the offer, Upton declines and hits the market, seeking a massive deal: four to six years, at $14 million to $17 million per. With big-budget teams such as the Nationals, Phillies and Rangers among the leading possibilities, along with the Braves, Brewers, Giants, Reds, White Sox and Brewers, among others, this should be an interesting market.
ESPN analyst Jim Bowden, a former GM, said he thinks Upton will get close to that, predicting a five-year, $15 million-a-year deal. The other top true centerfielder on the market is Michael Bourn, who was with the Braves, though Josh Hamilton's situation could also impact.
INTERNATIONAL VIEW: The Rays don't usually top any spending lists, but they did in signing international amateur free agents, doling out an MLB-most $3.8 million for 15 teenage prospects, so much so they'll have to pay another $750,000 or so in "tax" for exceeding their budgeted amount and be limited next year.
Though their strategy is surprising, the Rays certainly must like the talent, which includes hard-throwing LHP Jose Castillo, $1.55 million; RHP Jose Mujica, $1 million; and C David Rodriguez, $600,000, all Venezuelans, all ranked among the top 15 international prospects by Baseball America.
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RAYS RUMBLINGS: Agent Scott Boras said 1B Carlos Peña, a 34-year-old free agent after a disappointing season offensively (.197/19/61, with a .684 OPS) and defensively, definitely plans to keep playing: "There are few men who can do what he does in a bad season; that's a good season for a lot of players." … Bench coach Dave Martinez, a finalist for the Houston manager's job that went to Bo Porter, hasn't heard, yet anyway, from the Blue Jays, Marlins or Rockies, who are all looking. … OF Sam Fuld, as projected, made the cutoff for Super 2 arbitration eligibility, which should double his 2013 salary to around $1 million. … Condolences to Rays radio man Dave Wills, whose mother passed away last weekend. … Boras, as usual, didn't see much chance of RHP Jeremy Hellickson or OF Desmond Jennings signing long-term deals: "At the point of their careers where they're at, it's usually an annual relationship."