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  1. Rays

Rays say moves try to balance future, present

DANIEL WALLACE | Times
Published Jan. 18, 2015

Matt Silverman did not simply wake up one morning after sliding into his new role as president of Rays baseball operations and decide to ship out nearly half the team he inherited. • It only looked that way. • The massive offseason makeover that Silverman has orchestrated — making seven trades that sent nine key players packing and cutting a 10th — is the product of a process to restock a sagging farm system, reduce what had been a franchise-high payroll (though only by about $10 million, to around $70 million) and increase the flexibility of the roster, all while hanging on to enough talent to return the team to contention. • "It's a little bit of a threading of the needle," Silverman said. "We're working within our constraints to field a team that we believe can compete, while at the same time keeping an eye on the needed talent in our system to maintain confidence in our long-term competitiveness." • The plan — yes, despite what some critics suggest, they do have one — was employed, and perhaps accelerated, after Silverman replaced Andrew Friedman in mid October, then saw manager Joe Maddon leave.

The reconstruction process started to alleviate a roster crunch, the Rays making deals to make room to add a group of their own young players. Those trade talks led to others, an unexpectedly robust market developing for outfielder Wil Myers, who disappointed in his second season.

Next they were faced with making another one of those deals, trading fan-favorite Ben Zobrist before he became too expensive to keep and was lost via free agency. In the process, they further renovated the roster, and the clubhouse culture, by ditching a few others and picked up pieces they felt would fit in relievers Ernesto Frieri and Kevin Jepsen, infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, catcher Rene Rivera, DH John Jaso and rookie outfielder Steven Souza. Along the way, they hired former player Kevin Cash as manager despite having no experience, and shuffled the coaching staff.

The totality of the moves has not gone over well with Rays fans or many media observers, who wonder aloud exactly what they are doing.

"Everywhere I go, if I run into a fan on the street or at a restaurant, that question is asked," ace starter Alex Cobb said. "Then you flip on the MLB Network, and we're rebuilding and the year is kind of over before it begins."

But Rays brass and Cash insist they are still in it to win it, and their big-name players say they are on board. "Not concerned at all," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Excited at the prospect of new players and a new direction and philosophy. I think Matt has made tremendous progress."

How it works out, of course, will play out over the next nine months.

"We have had great offseasons and not-so-great offseasons. Time will tell how successful this one is," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "We accomplished much of what we set out to do, so in that respect I am pleased. It seems that we have had our greatest success when the expectations for the Rays are muted."

So what is the impact of all the moves? Here's a look:

Can they play ball?

Can this team be as good as, or better than, what they had?

Well, they kept intact a rotation that is potentially the best in the American League East and have a bullpen, assuming closer Jake McGee makes it back from elbow surgery early in the season, that appears deeper.

But it's a tougher sell to say the offense is better after they took away from a group that already ranked last in the American League in runs (612) and 13th in home runs (117) without adding any sure-bet replacements.

Which means the Rays are going to have to be right on several assumptions:

. That catcher Rene Rivera, who had a breakout season at age 30, and DH John Jaso are big upgrades over what little the Rays got from those spots.

. That free agent signee Asdrubal Cabrera, 29, proves to be the more productive switch-hitting, power-declining middle infielder than soon-to-be 34-year-old Ben Zobrist, albeit without the defensive versatility.

. That Steven Souza turns out to be more like the power-hitting impact player they expected Wil Myers to be than he was.

. That Kevin Kiermaier, with a path cleared for regular playing time, can continue to be a dynamic force.

. And that, as they would have hoped anyway, veterans such as Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings rebound from subpar offensive seasons.

"If our players play to their expectations and we get the contributions we expect from the players we've added, this should be a better offensive team," president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said. "If you couple that with the pitching and the defense that we rely upon, this team should be competitive and it should be compelling. The talent level is certainly there. It just looks different than it has in years past."

Still, there are some issues to be worked out. One is sorting out the middle infield, deciding where Cabrera plays and who pairs with him, with Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham the top choices as of now. Also, determining if Souza is ready, exploring trading outfielder David DeJesus and potentially adding a middle infielder and a more experienced second catcher.

Is it always about the money?

It has been known since principal owner Stuart Sternberg said so in mid September that the Rays payroll was headed down from the team-record $80 million they carried into a 2014 season that yielded only 77 wins.

The question has been how much.

And the answer, as of today anyway, is only about $10 million, or 12.5 percent.

As currently configured, the Rays head into the 2015 season with an opening-day payroll of around $70 million, though trading David DeJesus would cut off $5 million. (Plus they're paying released catcher Jose Molina $2.75 million.)

The reduction certainly could have been, and originally was planned to be, more extensive. The major-leaguers the Rays traded will make in excess of $31 million this season. But raises to the players they kept and decisions to add veterans, rather than get all prospects and totally blow it up, offset some of the cutbacks. (They did, however, unload $12.5 million in future payroll owed Yunel Escobar and Ryan Hanigan.)

Can they return to bumper crops?

While the Rays are hoping the moves work out on the big-league level, they appear to have definitely helped a farm system that had not been producing much top-end talent, with draft picks failing to develop, at least not quickly, and touted prospects derailed by injuries, inconsistent play and other issues.

At the least, the restocking increased the pool of applicants and landed the Rays several potential future stars.

Two of the players acquired now rank as the Rays' top prospects, Steven Souza and shortstop Daniel Robertson, according to the industry-leading experts at Baseball America, and seven newcomers overall would be among their top 30. (MLB Pipeline's top 20 ratings, compiled by mlb.com staff, include an eighth newbie, outfielder Boog Powell.)

This after the July acquisitions of two other players who rank near the top, shortstops Willy Adames, from Detroit in the David Price trade, and Adrian Rondon, the now 16-year-old Dominican signed for a nearly $3 million bonus.

"There's no doubt we can use an injection (of top prospects)," farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "You've all seen over the years what has taken place and how we've been drafting and developing, and what we have, we haven't been as strong lately as we have in the past. We're all cognizant of it, we all have to work harder at it and do better."

A system that had dropped to 20th in Baseball America's organizational talent rankings got some help.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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