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Here’s why making Rays better won’t be easy

Trading Tommy Pham created some financial flexibility heading to winter meetings but the challenge remains.
GM Erik Neander spoke Thursday about the challenges of making the Rays better.
GM Erik Neander spoke Thursday about the challenges of making the Rays better. [ MARC TOPKIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2019
Updated Dec. 7, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The challenge for the Rays this off-season was already significant.

Take a team that won 96 games and joyfully crashed the playoffs, had a couple key players due raises and others eligible for free agency, needs to score more runs, doesn’t have much if any room to add payroll - and make it better.

Hours after outlining their plans Thursday to try to do so, the Rays made the task even more arduous. They traded one of their best offensive, and most intense, players, Tommy Pham, for what in the 2020 season even they acknowledge was a lesser return, perhaps a step back, in outfielder Hunter Renfroe, from whom they are hoping for big things, and 20-year-old prospect Xavier Edwards.

“This is a move we make to hopefully feel better about our decisions in time,’’ GM Erik Neander said late Friday. “It’s not an easy one to make in the moment. We’re not going hide that.

“It’s early in the offseason. At this point there are a lot of possibilities ahead of us. Our goal, and our expectation, is to enter the 2020 season with internal expectations that exceed last year’s expectations. And I hope our fans will see it similarly by March 26 (opening day).’’

What certainty in performance, experience and clubhouse influence the Rays lost in trading Pham, they gained in financial flexibility, and specifically for 2020.

There’s about a $5 million difference in projections for what Pham ($8.6 million) and Renfroe ($3.4) will make via arbitration. And working off a major-league low $62 million payroll, and with bosses who tie that to home attendance that despite the playoff run was once again among the worst in MLB (which, if you haven’t heard, is another story … ), that savings is important.

The Rays, unlike some teams, don’t operate with a hard payroll budget, but more of a multi-year plan, and at times will make exceptions, or at least to “borrow” ahead. But based on a similar total from last year, they don’t have much room to work with.

With Charlie Morton due his $15 million, Kevin Kiermaier getting a raise to $10 million and Blake Snell to $7 million and Mike Zunino re-signing for $4.5 million, more than half the rough number is spent.

Renfroe, Chaz Roe, Tyler Glasnow, Oliver Drake and Daniel Robertson are in the arbitration process, so that’s another $8.5 million accounted for. Brandon Lowe gets $1.5 million, Ji-Man Choi maybe $1 million.

So if they Rays are at about the same payroll, that leaves roughly $15 million for the other 15 players on the now 26-man roster, plus whoever’s on the injured list. With the minimum salary going up to $563,500, well you can do the math on what little that leaves for veteran additions, as Neander likely will many times on the 5-hour flight to San Diego for the winter meetings that start Sunday night.

Something Neander said about payroll at Thursday’s pre-meetings media session seems a bit more telling now.

“I think we've been afforded the opportunity to be opportunistic when there is the right time and the right player to do something, and I fully expect that to be the case this year,’’ he said. “That was the case last year and we elected to go with some younger players that we felt deserved opportunity and to not layer a veteran player on top of them in some cases. Those are the kind of decisions we will have to make this year.

“But, yeah, I think we have our historical behaviors and kind of where we've been, and I think that's largely understood as to as to why.

“But I do believe that there's some flexibility in that if the right deal comes along. That's not to raise expectations. That is just something that we are afforded. But we really like the club we have and there aren’t that many ways to try to round it out without making some moves in tandem potentially.’’

So the “tandem” part was trading Pham, and his salary.

But the outfield already needed help, with Avisail Garcia a free agent and Guillermo Heredia non-tendered. And they are low on right-handed hitting, with the additional departures of catcher Travis d’Arnaud and infielders Matt Duffy and Jesus Aguilar.

Renfroe could be a star. Into July last season, he was on pace for 50-plus homers and had an OPS well north of .900 before being slowed by a foot injury that has been repaired.

Still, they need even more help now than they did. And probably some good luck.

“The need for offense is greater today than it was yesterday,’’ Neander said after announcing the Pham deal.

In re-signing Zunino, the Rays are banking, heavily, on a rebound from a miserable offensive season. Though Neander said they’d be comfortable opening the season with the tandem of Zunino and Michael Perez, as they did in 2019 before injuries became an issue, he also says they will be looking to add another catcher, and probably one who can hit, though that market is limited. Trading from their stash of prospects may be more realistic (the Cubs Willson Contreras?) than a signing.

And they are still chasing more offense elsewhere, with an opening for a right-handed hitting first baseman/DH type, or with the flexibility to instead add at third (moving Yandy Diaz around) or second (using Brandon Lowe more in the outfield). And they have serious interest in bringing back Garcia.

Potentially needing three players to boost the offense, the search will be interesting. And these are the Rays, who tend to find value and success in ways and places other teams don’t.

Even as they were working on the Pham deal, they were making a legit run at free agent hitter Howie Kendrick, who decided he would rather stay, and likely finish, with the Nats, and did so for a reasonable 1-year, $6.25 million deal. So they’ll keep looking.

Like most teams, they also will seek some bullpen help. They have to, given the volatility of year to year performances. A return to form by Jose Alvarado after his lost 2019 would be a huge boost, but they will seek out more options.

On the plus side, assuming no injuries, they have the rotation depth, as radical as this would be for them, to actually open the season with five fulltime starters in Morton, Snell, Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos. Adding to the reserves at Triple-A would be wise.

The glow of last year’s success, much due to the young and inexpensive core, didn’t last long. The challenge for 2020, some of their own doing as they are never “all-in” and always looking to the future, seems vexing.

Neander spoke Thursday of how they may have to “change the complexion” of their roster and that there will be “some twists and turns” as they make moves, but remains confident they’ll have it figured out when it matters.

“We have goals for the winter and where we want to be opening day, which is to try to put ourselves in a position to be at least as competitive as we were last year, while also doing what we can to be at least as strong as we are right now in our future outlook,’’ Neander said. “That’s pretty difficult to accomplish. That’s what we envision.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.