Rays open to rebuild but stay focused on improving current squad

Logan Morrison, who bounced back from a rough start with the Rays to hit 14 home runs before a season-ending injury, is a candidate to return.
Logan Morrison, who bounced back from a rough start with the Rays to hit 14 home runs before a season-ending injury, is a candidate to return.
Published Dec. 18, 2016

Though the Rays head into the final weeks of 2016 focused on filling some obvious holes and dealing just one of their short-term starters to remain competitive in the powerful AL East, that could still change.

If lured by massive return, they remain open, as they feel they have to be, to make a big deal — or a couple — that could greatly impact how they look and what chances they have to win in 2017.

"I think we're at a position where we feel like we need to at least play it forward and take a crack at it," GM Erik Neander said Friday. "If the interest and market dictates that we go a different direction, we have to consider it and trust our evaluations. But we believe in a lot of the players we have."

So while there could be some merit to a rebuild, especially given potential sell-high markets for some key players such as 3B Evan Longoria, they will continue their search for a couple of bullpen arms and what looks to be two position players — a big bat from the glut of DH/1B-type free agents, and a strong defensive outfielder — and their talks to trade Drew Smyly or, less likely, Alex Cobb.

Most interesting will be their pursuit of the hitter, as eventually they will have a commodity more valuable to offer than top dollar in the opportunity for 400-500 at-bats.

They've been discussing and, most likely, will be picking from a second-tier group such as lefties Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Howard, Brandon Moss and Luis Valbuena, or righties such as Billy Butler and Chris Carter, the 41-homer-hitting nontender. There is also talk of bringing back Logan Morrison, who hit 14 homers in half a season between his wretched start and season-ending injury.

But it remains possible, with the major if of the price being discounted enough, that they would give up their competitive balance draft pick, No. 31 as of now, and go big in signing slugger Jose Bautista. Until he gets his money elsewhere, there will be whispers of a potential one-year Toronto revenge tour while playing from the comfort of his Tampa home.

With the well-received addition of C Wilson Ramos being one step and other pending additions, whoever they are, Neander said they remain confident with health and good fortune that they can be up to the AL East challenge.

"There's a certain belief that we have in the core of our team, that it's not out of the question that we can compete deep into the season," he said.

DRAFT BREEZE: Principal owner Stuart Sternberg's symbolic no vote on the new labor deal definitely drew some attention. Given that the Rays' primary goal was to get more and/or higher draft picks, the point has been raised that they haven't done well with the ones they've had.

From 2008-14, the Rays picked 33 times in the top 100 of a draft and thus far don't have much to show for it in the majors beyond the promise of LHP Blake Snell. Otherwise it's spare parts such as INF Tim Beckham and OF Mikie Mahtook, nontendered Ryan Brett and the slight returns for Derek Dietrich, Tyler Goeddel, Kyle Lobstein and Richie Shaffer.

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The Rays, naturally, feel they've done better than it looks, noting the process isn't unilateral (Corey Seager and Marcus Stroman were picked just before they took Shaffer in 2012) and citing the potential for near-future impact of more recent high picks such as Casey Gillaspie, Brent Honeywell and Ryne Stanek.

"It's an area where we're always trying to advance things, always trying to get better, and we are constantly takings steps to do so," Neander said.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Among pitchers being discussed is RHP Nathan Eovaldi, nontendered by the Yankees after Tommy John surgery that will keep him out all, or at least most, of 2017. … Minor-league coaching staffs will be announced this week, highlighted by the return of Steve Henderson as a hitting coordinator. … The Rays have yet to decide on allowing LHP Xavier Cedeno, who missed September with neck issues, to play for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. … September callup LHP Justin Marks was signed to a minor-league deal with a spring invite, as was former Yankees RHP Diego Moreno. … Per MLB's complex calculations, the Rays' final 2016 payroll was $66,672,702, more than only Milwaukee's. … INF Kevin Padlo was chosen for the Australian league all-star game. … Though there would be some poetry, the Rays aren't likely to have interest in bringing back Josh Hamilton if he doesn't, as expected, sign a minor-league deal with Texas. … Per the illustrious Peter Gammons, the Rays told the Mets an Alex Colome deal would have to start with young OF Michael Conforto or top SS prospect Amed Rosario.

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.