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Rays to be flexible at winter meets

Matt Silverman, right, with now-departed David Martinez, says the team is happy with its roster but is willing to talk.
Matt Silverman, right, with now-departed David Martinez, says the team is happy with its roster but is willing to talk.
Published Dec. 8, 2014

SAN DIEGO — Having completed their 42-day search to hire a new manager, the reconfigured Rays front office will now focus fully on molding the team Kevin Cash will lead.

And based on what baseball operations president Matt Silverman said heading into this week's winter meetings, that could mean anything from making a few more tweaks to a significant shakeup.

"We're pretty close to having a functional roster," Silverman said. "That doesn't mean that we aren't going to explore substantial changes to it. But we're comfortable heading into spring training with the bulk of the players already on our roster and in our organization."

In other words, they're willing to talk, or at least listen, on trade proposals for just about anyone on the roster, seeking ways to make the team better overall, preferably younger and more athletic and, most likely, cheaper. Also that, like usual, they won't be in the bidding on any of the top free agents in a steep market Silverman described thus far as "frothy."

Here's some of what they'll be talking about:

What they're looking for

The one clear area of need, and one they already are "working to address," is for a catcher to back up Ryan Hanigan, someone more experienced than Curt Casali and more, well, everything than Jose Molina, who was released. San Diego, with a glut that includes Yasmani Grandal, Rene Rivera and top prospect Austin Hedges, could be a trade match, or there could be a lesser free-agent signing.

Silverman also said "there is a possibility" of signing a veteran starter, such as they did last year with Erik Bedard, to join internal candidates led by Alex Colome and Nathan Karns to fill out the rotation as Matt Moore aims for a late first-half return from Tommy John surgery. The front four of their rotation — Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly — is among the game's best.

And though they're saying they are comfortable with the depth in the bullpen, the Rays, like every team, always will be on the lookout to improve.

But the bigger question, and mystery, is how to improve an offense that was last in the American League in runs and 13th in home runs, and to do so at time when almost every other team is looking for bats and power is at a premium. Most likely, that means taking a chance on some young guys, or a downside veteran (Ryan Howard is a name that may come up) they can get at a discount.

What they'd give up

The Rays are likely to deal from their outfield depth, and Silverman confirmed among other more general conversations "that has been a place where we have had discussions with teams."

The assumption has been the Rays would deal either Matt Joyce or David DeJesus, or maybe both, two lefty swingers who will make around $5 million each and haven't produced at that level, though neither would necessarily be a top target for other teams. So they may be better served on a return by offering Desmond Jennings, who is projected to make $3.2 million in his first year of arbitration, or even Wil Myers, who would be the kind of player who could stir the market.

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So, too, could infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist, whose $7.5 million salary in the final year of his contract makes him one of the game's biggest bargains, which means the Rays would have to be severely overwhelmed.

Other veterans who could be had may be identified by their salaries as much as anything else, such as shortstop Yunel Escobar (due $5 million, and $7 million in 2016, and whose temperamental personality was handled by now departed bench coach Dave Martinez), first baseman James Loney (owed $7 million and $8 million) and reliever Grant Balfour ($7 million).

Money matters

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg is on record that he plans to reduce the payroll from last year's franchise record $80 million, noting how they've done more with less, but he has not said how much. Commitments to the current roster are in excess of $76 million.

Silverman said that there is no mandate to cut to a specific number, that "there are no hard and fast rules," that in past offseasons "that has been the stated goal and we've ended up with a payroll at or above the stated targets," and that they remain flexible.

"We're always trying to solve for talent and make sure we have the requisite talent within the major-league club and knocking on the doorstep in case there is a need," Silverman said. "If that club costs $70 million then it does, and if it costs $50 million all the better because it provides more power whether that's for in-season or for future seasons."

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