Rays will have different challenges filling roster holes

Catching and starting pitching depth are top priorities, with budget limits an issue and no winter meetings to talk things out.
Rays general manager Erik Neander said on a Zoom call the team is working on plans for 2021 despite a number of uncertainties.
Rays general manager Erik Neander said on a Zoom call the team is working on plans for 2021 despite a number of uncertainties. [ Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2020|Updated Dec. 8, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Working from his Tropicana Field office Monday instead of a hotel suite in Dallas — with the winter meetings canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic — Rays general manager Erik Neander said the ample work ahead of the team will get done in different ways absent the annual face-to-face gathering.

The Rays’ top priority initially is adding catchers, with the team needing to sign or trade for a couple. Next is rebuilding starting pitching depth after losing Charlie Morton to free agency, with three other rotation options sidelined into 2021 by injury. A few other moves, to balance the bullpen and the handedness and positional aspects of the roster, are likely.

And they may have to do so more on a budget than usual, which is why the possibility of trading pitcher Blake Snell and/or centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier — their two highest-paid players — has been raised.

The Rays don’t talk, at least publicly, about a set payroll figure, maintaining some flexibility from year to year, though it usually is among the lowest in the game. Last year’s team, for example, was going to cost around $70 million.

But given pandemic-caused revenue shortfalls, the Rays have to prepare for the possibility of having less to work with in 2021, even after reaching the World Series. A massive cut is not expected, but much is unknown about whether fans will be allowed at games and if the Rays’ revenue-sharing payments will be restored.

It may be that what the Rays have right now — a team pending resolution of seven arbitration-eligible players’ salaries that could be filled out and fielded for less than $60 million — is all they have to work with.

“This overarching goal of trying to put together the most competitive rosters we can, within our means, is always there,” Neander said Monday on a Zoom media call. “And certainly this winter comes with more uncertainty than the typical winter, and just trying to be as responsive and to be as flexible as we go through things and better understand the economy, the outlook for the game and what’s ahead. There’s that extra fluidity that’s going to be needed as we go through this that isn’t a specific need necessarily, but just something that we have to pay close attention to.

“We’ve got a really good group. … I know we’d be more than happy to roll into next year with what we have, minus our catching situation. But, as always, we’re going to keep an open mind, try to do the best we can to be as competitive as possible within our means.”

Trading Snell (due $10.5 million in 2021 and $39 million over three seasons) or Kiermaier ($11.5 million in 2021, then $12 million in 2022 and a $13 million 2023 option or $2.5 million buyout) would create some flexibility to address other areas. Otherwise, the Rays will either have to find savings elsewhere or limit their additions to younger or less experienced/accomplished players making close to the $570,500 minimum.

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Among other things Neander said Monday:

• With prospect Ronaldo Hernandez the only catcher on the 40-man roster, the Rays are looking at a number of options, including the possibility of re-signing Mike Zunino and/or Kevan Smith, who are now free agents.

• Lefty Shane McClanahan, who debuted in the playoffs as a reliever, will be used as a starter going forward. He could be among a pool of candidates that includes Josh Fleming, Trevor Richards, Aaron Slegers, Brent Honeywell and prospect Joe Ryan to join Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough and Snell, if not traded.

• The Rays are planning for a 26-man roster and a full 162-game schedule that starts on time, and will adjust to any changes Major League Baseball makes depending on the pandemic.

• Not having the annual winter meetings this week will alter the dynamics of the offseason, though not necessarily the outcome as much contact among team executives and with agents is now done by phone and text even when under the same roof. “The winter meetings in the past serve as a catalyst for conversations, kind of an accelerator of sorts to bring some things to a head just by having everybody in one place with their focuses more aligned than they are any other week typically,’' Neander said. “So, yeah, this is different. … But I think us and every other club, we still know we have business to take care of and while it’s different, we’re not having a hard time communicating, conversing by phone.”

Kittredge re-signs on minor-league deal

Reliever Andrew Kittredge re-signed on a minor-league deal and will report to camp with no restrictions or limitations from the Aug. 11 elbow injury that ended his season and created speculation he would need Tommy John surgery. Agent Brian Grieper said Kittredge rehabbed the injury and has already had three full-go bullpen sessions with no issues.