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Rays’ offseason priorities: Lock up Travis d’Arnaud, Willy Adames

John Romano: And while they’re at it, find a consistent closer and a bat with some pop.
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, on left, along with Erik Neander, center, senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager, and Chaim Bloom, senior vice president of baseball operations, address the media during a news conference at Tropicana Field on Friday. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, on left, along with Erik Neander, center, senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager, and Chaim Bloom, senior vice president of baseball operations, address the media during a news conference at Tropicana Field on Friday. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 11, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Years ago, when Andrew Friedman was still running the Rays front office, I was critiquing his pursuit of some long-forgotten player.

There were too many swing-and-miss hitters on the roster, I argued. The Rays needed someone who wasn’t a threat to strike out every three at-bats.

“So someone with a high on-base percentage?” he asked.

Yes.

“And with power?”

Yes.

“But a lower strikeout rate?”

Well, yes.

“Do you know what you call that?”

Um, what?

“A $20 million a year player.”

I was reminded of that conversation while talking to current Rays general manager Erik Neander at Tropicana Field on Friday. Being a critic is a whole lot easier when the millions are only theoretical and an entire community isn’t depending on you to make a summer magical.

And that brings us to Tampa Bay’s offseason, which began a little earlier than hoped for on Friday.

First of all, the Rays are in terrific shape. They are one of seven teams that has won 90 or more games in consecutive seasons, and 37 of the players on the 40-man roster remain under team control. That means there is no reason they shouldn’t be contenders again in 2020.

And if money was no object, it would be a lot easier to find upgrades and reinforcements where necessary. But the franchise’s ever-present struggle with revenues makes that equation a heck of a lot more challenging.

Related: RELATED: For the 2019 Rays, ‘it’s all about the ride’

Tampa Bay had baseball’s smallest payroll at roughly $64 million in 2019. Neander and baseball operations vice president Chaim Bloom say there is no hard payroll number for next season because it’s generally a rolling range over a three-year period. Considering how low it was this past season, is it possible the payroll could rise above $70 million next year? Probably. Could it climb above $80 million? That would seem less likely.

So instead of simply shopping for the pieces they need, the Rays likely will take some time to assess the entire free-agent market along with trade possibilities for each team. Then they have to figure out how it fits into the framework of a major-league roster. In other words, most additions will require a subtraction.

With that in mind, here are five moves the Rays need to consider this winter:

1. Sign Travis d’Arnaud

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Travis d'Arnaud (37) reaches back for the tag as Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) attempts to slide at home plate in the fourth inning in Game 4. Altuve was called out at the plate. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

This might seem obvious considering d’Arnaud’s huge role in the pennant race this summer, but it’s trickier than it seems. While he came up with numerous big hits, d’Arnaud’s overall offensive production in the final year of his contract was probably a little better than average for catchers. So how much will it cost to keep d’Arnaud in Tampa Bay? Wilson Ramos got a two-year, $19 million deal from the Mets last offseason and is a more accomplished hitter.

If d’Arnaud could be signed for two years and $16 million, the Rays should probably do it. But that would mean getting rid of Mike Zunino, who will be too expensive with a salary creeping close to $5 million thru arbitration. The irony is Zunino is exactly the type of catcher the Rays would normally chase because he’s superior defensively and is coming off an atypically poor offensive season. But, because he is already on the roster, rules forbid the Rays from lowballing him.

Related: RELATED: Why Kiermaier to Adames to d’Arnaud will go down in Rays history

2. Get a closer with pedigree

For two months, we’ve been talking about how good Tampa Bay’s bullpen had become. So why chase a closer? The Rays still do not have anyone who has been a shutdown pitcher in the ninth inning and, as they found out early in 2019, that can be a potentially fatal flaw.

Emilio Pagan took over as closer midway through the season, and brought a little stability to the role. But he did tie for the league lead in blown saves, and his penchant for giving up home runs could be troublesome. Nick Anderson was dominant in a setup role, but are the Rays willing to hand the closer job to a relatively inexperienced reliever? They tried that with Jose Alvarado this season, and the results were not pretty.

3. Sign Willy Adames to a long-term deal

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Willy Adames (1) celebrates his solo homer in the fourth inning as Houston Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos (28) and umpire James Hoye (92) look on in Game 4. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

The Rays locked up Blake Snell and Brandon Lowe in spring training this season. Adames should be the next target. He’s talented, works hard and is a great clubhouse presence. It might make things awkward when top shortstop prospect Wander Franco is ready to come to Tampa Bay in 2021, but that’s a decision for another day. The Rays could move Franco to third base, or they could trade Adames, which would be easier if he’s signed.

Related: RELATED: Rays’ Willy Adames is taking the moment and making it his

4. Trade, trade, trade

This is what the Rays do best. They identify their surpluses, and use the extra pieces to fill holes. And it’s not just veterans that get moved. They’ve traded Jake Bauers, Wil Myers, Mallex Smith and Ryne Stanek before they started making big bucks.

On the current roster, I would entertain trade offers for anyone not named Adames, Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow.

5. Find a true thumper

Tampa Bay Rays rightfielder Avisail Garcia (24) connects for a single in the second inning against the Houston Astros in Game 3. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

The Rays have been searching for that middle-of-the order presence for a few years. Yandy Diaz and Avisail Garcia showed some pop in 2019 but pitchers don’t start sweating when they see them in the on-deck circle. Garcia is also likely gone as one of the three free agents, along with d’Arnaud and Eric Sogard.

The Rays were hoping Nelson Cruz would be that big-time hitter in 2019, but Minnesota offered him a better deal. (And he hit 41 homers.) Free agent Edwin Encarnacion is not as feared as Cruz, but he could be a potential designated hitter target if the price is right.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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