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Rays head to GM meetings seeking offense

Rays Tales: Erik Neander says 2019 success provides “a stronger starting point” than they have had in a while. Plus, rumblings.

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays GM Erik Neander and crew will be in Arizona this week for the annual general manager meetings, and not having now red-socked former colleague Chaim Bloom at his side won’t be the only difference than past gatherings.

The Rays are coming off a season when they won 96 games despite a slew of injuries and made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They are coming into the offseason with the bulk of the young team intact, now healthy and under control at a reasonable cost (with more talent in the minors). All of this leaves them with a relatively short to-do list this week, and the ability to be selective in what moves they make.

Unchanged, however, they will be somewhat limited financially, with more than $45 million committed (including arbitration projections) to five players (Charlie Morton, Kevin Kiermaier, Tommy Pham, Blake Snell, Mike Zunino), and a big jump from last year’s $63 million payroll unexpected.

“This is a stronger starting point than we’ve had in some time, and with that the focus is different,’’ Neander said. “We’re in info-gathering mode right now, trying to assess possible ways we can improve our team.’’

Though the always creative Rays never stick to a strict shopping list (kind of like me at Publix), they do have some priorities.

“Determining what the catcher position will look like for us in 2020 is an obvious focus,’’ Neander said. “Beyond that, we’d love to find a way to score a lot more runs (than their 769 that was tied for seventh in the AL) without sacrificing run prevention.''

Those two are somewhat connected as one early goal is to get a sense of what catcher Travis d’Arnaud is looking for as a free agent, what his market could be and what trade options there might be given a slim free-agent field.

Beyond that the Rays will be exploring almost every potential trade and signing option, feeding the rumor mill by “expressing interest” and “having internal discussions” about myriad hitters, and likely a few pitchers.

There already is plenty of chatter about the two veteran free-agent hitters that could fit at designated hitter, Edwin Encarnacion and Howie Kendrick. Like with most Rays moves, they have to be at the right price.

That requires their usual calculus in determining whether to create more payroll space by trading big-monied players now, aiming for one major move or several small ones, being aggressive early or waiting to see who is available late, and thus cheap.

Also a factor is determining how much offensive help they really need since key players such as Brandon Lowe and Yandy Diaz missed considerable 2019 time.

Related to the d’Arnaud decision is what to do with Zunino, whether to tender him a contract by the Dec. 2 deadline to be the fallback or backup. There also will be tough decisions on a couple other of the nine arbitration eligibles, such as Matt Duffy ($2.9 million projected), Jesus Aguilar ($2.5 million) and Chaz Roe ($2.2 million).

As they’ll surely get inquiries, they also have to think through who they’d be most willing to deal from the big bucks group of Morton ($15 million salary), Kiermaier ($10 million), Pham ($8.6 million projected via arbitration) and Snell ($7 million) to repurpose payroll. Pham seems by far the most likely, unless they went cold-hearted and dealt Morton.

So yes, things are different this off-season. But also the same.

Wade Boggs book signing in Tampa

Hall of Famer Wade Boggs is featured in the Tampa chapter of a new coffee table photo book, Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin, by Jean Fruth, and will be part of a panel discussion and book signing 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at Tampa’s Oxford Exchange. Proceeds from the $5 admission and book sales ($60) will be donated to the Hillsborough Education Fund (benefiting the Saladino Tournament) and Redbone Cystic Fibrosis.

Rays rumblings

Kevin Cash is a strong candidate for the BBWAA AL Manager of the Year award to be announced Tuesday; infielder Brandon Lowe is a finalist for Monday’s top rookie award (with Tampa’s Pete Alonso the NL favorite), and Morton in the top three for Wednesday’s Cy Young honors. … Radio pre-/post-game host Neil Solondz spent the last week in Korea doing international TV play-by-play for the Premier 12 Olympic qualifying tournament featuring Australia, Cuba, Canada and Korea. … Ha Ram (Sam) Jeong, the interpreter for Korean Ji-Man Choi, won’t be back, and the team is seeking a replacement. Jeong said he wanted to return but his contract was not renewed. … It had to be awful close for Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain to beat out Kiermaier for the Wilson defensive player award in centerfield. … Bloom, joking to MLB Network when asked about bringing his knowledge of the Rays’ intel with him to Boston: “Well, they don’t have one of those devices from Men in Black where they can wipe my brain. I’m sure if the Rays R&D department had come up with that it would have been used on me before I walked out the door.’’ … Infielder Kean Wong, claimed by the Angels in September after being DFA’d by the Rays, got waived again and claimed by the Giants. … Before we get to the actual trade rumors portion of the winter we have the speculation and suggestions, including the New York Post’s Joel Sherman proposing a deal of Kiermaier and Yonny Chirinos to the Mets for infielder/outfielder Jeff McNeil. … Richie Shaffer, the Rays 2012 first-round pick who played 51 games in the majors over two seasons, is leaning toward retirement at age 28, posting a deeply personal essay on his @RShaff8 Twitter account about dealing with failure and greatness, with plans to finish college at Clemson, write novels (sci-fi and more) and stream video gameplay under the “satirical pseudonym” Dicky Danger. . … Longtime Rays minor-league manager Jared Sandberg was promoted to bench coach in his second year on the Mariners staff. … … The group seeking to bring an MLB team to Portland is boasting of a petition with 42,000 signatures. … One-time Rays (and Mariners and Twins) big-leaguer Taylor Motter, 30, spent last season in the independent Atlantic League and was the 11th pick in the dispersal draft of the former New Britain team.

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

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