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Waiting out market could work out for Rays in pursuit of a bat

Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista holds a bat during practice in Cleveland, the site of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series .[Associated Press]
Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista holds a bat during practice in Cleveland, the site of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series .[Associated Press]
Published Dec. 6, 2016

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Another option came off the board — well, the computer screens — for the Rays on Monday as Steve Pearce decided against a comfortable return to Tampa Bay to take $12.5 million over two years from the Blue Jays.

While that may be a loss — though how big may be based on how quickly and effectively Pearce recovers from elbow surgery — it is not defeat for the Rays.

Far from it.

As much as the early prices in the free agent market — in both years and dollars — have been too hefty for the Rays, there is a growing chance there will be a reward on the back side for them.

What will be required is patience, and flexibility, in terms of roster and, yes, money, which we know can be their most challenging currency.

But if the Rays are willing to wait, maybe until late in the offseason, there is such a glut of outfield/first base/DH-types available that they should be able to land a pretty good bat.

Joey Bats?

Probably not quite as powerful as the former Blue Jays slugger known formally as Jose Bautista, though he is among the free agents who to this point don't have a fit in the shrinking market, as the Astros signed Carlos Beltran, the Blue Jays Kendrys Morales and Pearce, the Mets Yoenis Cespedes and the Yankees Matt Holliday.

And who knows how appealing that short drive for Bautista from the Trop to his house in Tampa's West Shore area could be on a one-year, incentive-laden deal that would allow him to go back onto the market in 2018 unencumbered by draft pick compensation and get the big bucks.

But in simplistic terms, the hitters' market is going to evolve into a high-stakes game of musical chairs.

And as they wait through the winter, that could play into the Rays' favor as having at-bats to offer a hitter with limited other opportunities could land them a bargain, on the kind of one-year contract with reasonable base salaries — maybe with incentives, or an option — they prefer. It could be similar to the 2010-11 offseason, when they ended up with Johnny Damon (who worked out) and Manny Ramirez (not so much). Or even last offseason, when they got Pearce and traded for Corey Dickerson in January.

"Oftentimes we find that being patient helps us," senior vice president Chaim Bloom said Monday during the winter meetings. "We're able to pick up players later in the offseason that we might not have been able to access earlier. But sometimes there could be an opportunity that's only there for a certain period of time. … When we talk about weighing options, a lot of it is weighing timing, and when do you want to jump on different possibilities."

The Rays, of course, aren't the only ones looking, which complicates things. The Indians, who won the waiting game in signing Mike Napoli for $7 million plus incentives last winter, are prowling around again, and the Orioles, Rangers and Royals are among others.

But there look to be plenty of choices.

Among the better hitters still on the market: Pedro Alvarez, Bautista, Ian Desmond, Carlos Gomez, Edwin Encarnacion, Napoli and Mark Trumbo.

Among those on a lesser tier, thus more likely to be available for the Rays: Billy Butler, Chris Carter, Ryan Howard, Adam Lind, Mitch Moreland, Brandon Moss, Colby Rasmus and Michael Saunders.

Waiting for the free agent market to shrink also allows the Rays to further survey the options when they trade a starting pitcher. Depending on the arm being discussed, an elite level bat such as George Springer (Astros) could enter the conversation or, more likely, someone with big upside like Jorge Soler (Cubs).

And eventually there will be some veteran hitters being offered at big discounts as teams work to stay under the luxury tax limits.

Typically, the waiting is the hardest part. For the Rays this offseason, it may be the best part.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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