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If it’s January, the Rays must have a trick up their sleeve

John Romano | There may not be a franchise that has done a better job of sifting through the free-agent market and pouncing on players who have fallen between the cracks.
Rays general manager Erik Neander has both flexibility in his roster and in his payroll to search for a right-handed bat to offset the losses of Avisail Garcia and Tommy Pham this winter. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Rays general manager Erik Neander has both flexibility in his roster and in his payroll to search for a right-handed bat to offset the losses of Avisail Garcia and Tommy Pham this winter. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jan. 4
Updated Jan. 4

ST. PETERSBURG — The calendar is different around here. Not the months and days, but the tasks and urgency.

December is usually prime shopping season for Major League Baseball. That’s the month of the annual winter meetings, and that’s the typical time frame for blockbuster trades and new directions.

The Rays do things a little differently. This is their time. This is their secret. Like shoppers looking for deals after the holidays, the Rays wait until the market comes to them. They wait for that exact moment when price tag and availability align.

So, yes, they have already traded away Tommy Pham and they signed Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, but the Rays are not finished. In the six weeks before pitchers and catchers report, the Rays will find another hitter. Probably another catcher, too.

Related: What to expect from Rays slugger Yoshi Tsutsugo? Ask a former teammate

This is what they do. And based on recent evidence and accolades, they do it better than most.

They didn’t sign Asdrubal Cabrera until January of 2015. They signed Steve Pearce and traded for Corey Dickerson in January of 2016. Colby Rasmus and Logan Morrison were signed nine days apart in January and February of 2017. It was mid-February when they traded for C.J. Cron in 2018, and it wasn’t until March before they signed Carlos Gomez. Last year, it was Avisail Garcia who signed on Jan. 18.

None of these were long-term solutions. In fact, most were gone after one season. But in an inordinately high number of cases, the Rays found a player who had fallen between the cracks and could give them greater production at a reduced price.

After hitting 38 homers for the Rays, Morrison doubled his salary the next season in Minnesota. Cron did the same thing a year later. Dickerson made an All-Star team for the Rays, then got close to a 100 percent raise in Pittsburgh. The Rays got Garcia for a bargain rate of $3.5 million and he parlayed that into a two-year, $20 million deal in Milwaukee.

Do you see the trend? The Rays consistently stay one year ahead of the market.

They may have specific goals and desires, but because of their limited revenues and payroll, they need to stay open-minded enough to adjust to what the landscape is offering.

“The possibilities in a given offseason that exist for us and that are practical is typically not a very long list. And you have to be responsive to the opportunities that are provided," Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “There are going to be obvious needs, but sometimes the opportunities don’t overlap with your ideal way of moving forward. Understanding that … need for flexibility is how we ultimately put the best possible team together."

So what is it the Rays are shopping for today?

Mostly a right-handed bat, preferably in the outfield and hopefully with decent power. If he could play a little centerfield to give Kevin Kiermaier a break, that would be nice, too.

San Francisco Giants centerfielder Kevin Pillar makes the running catch for an out in the eighth inning of an Aug. 18 baseball game in Phoenix. [RICK SCUTERI | Associated Press]

Is there a single player who fits all of those needs at one time? Kevin Pillar comes to mind, but he may get a better opportunity (and more money) to be a full-time centerfielder elsewhere.

So that means the Rays will probably get creative. They may have already solved the centerfield problem by acquiring Brian O’Grady from the Reds in a minor deal in November. O’Grady, who can play all three outfield positions and first base, could start off in Triple-A Durham but be available if Kiermaier got hurt.

Related: What work Rays still have to do after adding Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

That might open the door for the Rays to pursue Hunter Pence, who is more of a corner outfielder/DH type but is one of 20 players who posted an OPS above 1.000 last season in 100 or more at-bats against left-handed pitching. Todd Frazier is another interesting possibility, although as a corner infielder he would necessitate another move to create room for a backup outfielder. The same goes for infielder Wilmer Flores who would give the Rays more versatility but a lot less pop.

If the dollars and opportunities don’t match up in the free-agent field, the Rays will turn their attention to the trade market. They’ll probably be loathe to part with any of their high-end prospects but could consider dealing first baseman Nate Lowe, infielder Daniel Robertson or even Hunter Renfroe who was acquired in the Pham deal.

With Ji-Man Choi and Tsutsugo on the roster, it’s hard to see many at-bats for a lefthanded first baseman such as Lowe. And now that Robertson is arbitration-eligible, the Rays may be content with Mike Brosseau in a utility role, although that could cause problems with depth at shortstop.

The point is the Rays will adjust depending on who’s available. But, make no mistake, there are moves upcoming.

So, yes, the calendar really is different around here.

You might say the Rays are usually one year ahead of the market.

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

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