ST. PETERSBURG — One benefit to the Rays’ season of grand expectations coming to an unexpectedly early end more than two weeks ago was getting an earlier start on planning for the next one.
Given that they won 100 games with a roster of players mostly under team control, somewhat reasonably priced and relatively young, they would seem to have much of the foundation for 2022 in place.
But given that they are the Rays, they are sure to make more than changes on the margin.
As usual, there is the potential for at least a couple of key players to be traded and replacements brought in, standard operating procedure as the Rays seek to remain competitive now while still building for the future — and doing so with one of the lowest payrolls in the game.
Plus, in the good-problems-to-have category, 40-man roster management will be a key issue throughout the offseason as the Rays will move some players in order to create room to keep others from their stacked farm system.
With the World Series ending this week, the offseason begins in earnest this weekend — though it could come to a grinding halt if a new collective bargaining agreement is not negotiated by Dec. 1.
For now, free agents can start signing with new teams five days after the Series ends, and teams will start talking trades next week at the annual general manager meetings next week in Carlsbad, Calif.
So how busy of an offseason will it be for the Rays? One with lots of little moves? A couple of big ones?
“That’s a good question,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “That’s something as the early part of the winter unfolds and we get a sense for where other teams are at will inform that.
“We have a really good team. It’s a young team. We think the arrow is pointing up. And we’d like to do what we can do to build on that, while maintaining our usual balancing act.”
Here’s a look at 10 questions they face, and how they’ll go about answering them.
What’s the first order of business?
Procedurally, the Rays need to reinstate the 12 players on the 60-man injured list to the 40-man roster by the fifth day following the Series. They get to take off the seven free agents, though three of those are among the injured, so there still needs to be some roster trimming, with players put on outright waivers or traded this week, as they need to open five spots. Assuming none of those are big names, the first offseason headline should be the obvious decision to pick up the $7 million option on catcher Mike Zunino, which also has to be done by Sunday (if the Series ended Tuesday) or Monday.
Will any of the free agents be re-signed?
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Players like being with the Rays, but they also like the chance to make more money, which is why they often don’t re-sign, especially after a good season. Most likely to return may be Michael Wacha, who got better late in the season and proved valuable in starter and relief duty. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz is a possibility at a reduced salary, though the expected adoption of the universal DH will expand his market to include 15 National League teams and drive up the price. Reliever Collin McHugh likely will have the opportunity to get more years and money elsewhere, as may David Robertson. But expect the Rays to at least ask both to stay.
Rays free agents
(with 2021 salary)
RHP Chris Archer+ ($6.5 million)
DH Nelson Cruz ($13 million)
RHP Tommy Hunter+ ($2.25 million)
RHP Collin McHugh ($1.8 million
RHP David Robertson ($2 million*)
RHP Chaz Roe+ ($1.15 million)
RHP Michael Wacha ($3 million)
+ on 60-day injured list; * pro-rated based on mid-August signing, made around $530,000
What about all those injured guys?
All 12 on the 60-day injured list are pitchers, and some won’t be Rays in 2022. Chris Archer, Tommy Hunter (acquired from the Mets to off-set Rich Hill’s salary) and Chaz Roe are free agents. Oliver Drake and DJ Johnson seem like spare parts who could be dropped and signed to minor-league deals. Tyler Glasnow, the staff ace who will miss 2022 recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, is a special case we will address elsewhere. That leaves the potential for some tough decisions as you could make a case for each of the other six, if healthy, helping the Rays in 2022 (and there is no injured list during the offseason to stash them on): right-handers Yonny Chirinos (who will miss the first month or two recovering from an elbow fracture) and Ryan Thompson; and lefties Jalen Beeks, Colin Poche, Cody Reed and Jeffrey Springs. It may be that one of the lefties has to go.
How are they set up for arbitration?
The Rays have a majors-most-matching 19 players eligible for arbitration at a projected cost, per mlbtraderumors.com, of $43.6 million. So, no, they won’t all be back. The need to clear 40-man roster space, and the health of some of the arbitration-eligible pitchers will be factors. The deadline to tender contracts is Dec. 2, but the Rays are likely to make some of the decisions sooner, if not to clear roster space this week, then by the Nov. 19 deadline to add prospects in advance of the Rule 5 draft. (Teams can drop players and re-sign them to minor-league deals.) Among those whose status seems uncertain are pitchers Adam Conley, Drake and Reed. There are health questions with Jalen Beeks and Yonny Chirinos. And others who will at least be discussed based on their production vs. salary would seem to include first baseman Ji-Man Choi, infielder/outfielder Jordan Luplow and pitcher Ryan Yarbrough.
RHP Tyler Glasnow $5.8 million
OF Manuel Margot $5 million
LHP Ryan Yarbrough $4.4 million
OF Austin Meadows $4.3 million
INF Joey Wendle $4 million
1B Ji-Man Choi $3.5 million
INF Yandy Diaz $2.7 million
RHP Matt Wisler $1.8 million
RHP Andrew Kittredge $1.6 million
INF/OF Jordan Luplow $1.5 million
C Francisco Mejia $1.5 million
RHP Yonny Chirinos $1.2 million
OF Brett Phillips $1.2 million
RHP Oliver Drake $1 million
LHP Jeffrey Springs $1 million
RHP Nick Anderson $900,000
LHP Adam Conley $900,000
LHP Cody Reed $700,000
LHP Jalen Beeks $600,000
Who else could get dropped/added?
Besides sorting through the injured and too expensive in order to open roster spots, the Rays also may look to trade (or drop) some players who no longer seem to fit in their plans. Pitcher Brent Honeywell, who battled through years of injuries, is out of options, which means he would have to stay in the majors all season. The same with pitchers Dietrich Enns and Chris Mazza. A couple others with options who may be considered extraneous are infielder Mike Brosseau and lefty reliever Ryan Sherriff. (Lefty Brendan McKay, whose career also has been derailed by injury, is expected to be granted a fourth option.) Among a trove of prospects who will be considered for addition to the roster and thus protected from Rule 5 selection are pitcher Tommy Romero, catcher Rene Pinto and infielder Jonathan Aranda. They also could be used in trades to resolve the roster crunch. Other candidates to be considered for the roster include pitchers Calvin Faucher and Phoenix Sanders, catcher Blake Hunt and outfielder Ruben Cardenas.
Who might get traded?
The easy answer is anybody with a big salary.
That list starts with centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who is making $12 million in 2022 and has a $2.5 million buyout on a $13 million option for 2023. The Rays have discussed trading Kiermaier previously, including to the Cubs last season, but value his defense too much to give him away and have yet to find a match with a team willing to pay enough. Expect them to keep looking this offseason, maybe packaging Kiermaier with a prospect to get more of a return in addition to shedding $14.5 million.
Some other big names likely to at least be discussed, and possibly moved, include outfielder Austin Meadows, infielder Joey Wendle and Choi, all of whom are arbitration-eligible and projected to make in the $3.5 million-$4.3 million range. Infielder Yandy Diaz, projected at $2.7 million, could be another.
In Meadows’ case, it’s a question of salary vs. production vs. versatility. Yes he drove in 106 runs, led the majors with 19 game-winning RBIs and was third with 29 go-ahead RBIs. But he hit .234 and, despite 27 homers, had only a .772 OPS and a 2.0 WAR (per baseball-reference.com). In short, he doesn’t play defense well enough to start in the Rays outfield that, even if Kiermaier also were traded, could still include Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot and Brett Phillips, plus majors-ready prospect Josh Lowe and versatile Vidal Brujan. And Meadows may not hit enough to be the fulltime DH, a tough ask for a 26-year-old, anyway.
Wendle is a talented, versatile, hard-working, example-setting, all-out-playing kind of guy teams love to have, but the Rays are deep in younger — and thus cheaper — infielders who could take his spot. While they don’t have an obvious replacement for Choi as their lefty-hitting first baseman, the Rays may prefer to move on in search of more power from that spot. Or they could consider shifting one of their other lefties to first, with Brandon Lowe one option, and maybe Meadows another.
What about Tyler Glasnow?
The Rays are in a tough spot with their ace starter. Whatever he ends up making via arbitration in 2022 (when he won’t pitch while recovering from Tommy John surgery), he is likely to make again in 2023 (when, if all goes well, he is expected to be fully healthy but on a closely monitored, and maybe limited, workload). And then he’ll head into free agency, getting a big bucks contract elsewhere. That seems to leave the Rays three choices: Pay him roughly $12 million over two years to get one less-than-full season (with the risky potential to trade him in July 2023 if he is healthy); work out a multi-year deal that pays him less in 2022 and more in 2023 and gives them an option or buys out his first year of free agency in 2024 (which he wouldn’t seem likely to take unless he really wants to stay); or trade him now, saving the money and passing on the risk to another team. That seems the safest move.
What do the Rays need?
The popular answer from fans is starting pitching. But the Rays feel really good about the young starters they have in Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Luis Patino and Shane Baz. Retaining Yarbrough would add a second lefty and some depth, and acquiring a veteran to provide leadership — along with a chance to win every fifth day — would help. But they are more likely to again be looking for a big bat to step in at DH, first base or part of the outfield rotation, providing an anchor to their lineup as they thought Cruz would. If nothing else, it’s a search they are familiar with.
Could they sign any players to extensions?
The potential for changes to free-agency rules could make it tough to strike a deal, but the Rays usually poke around to see what players are interested, and they’ve got plenty of young ones to check with. Maybe even Wander Franco. While the rookie sensation, who turns 21 March 1, eventually may be in line for a Fernando Tatis/Francisco Lindor $340 million deal (or more), would he be interested in securing his first $100 million from the Rays? Remember, they did sign Evan Longoria to a six-year, $100 million extension in November 2012. It can’t hurt for them to ask.
How will the labor negotiations impact things?
For now, Neander said, “it’s business as usual.” But everyone in and around the game knows the current labor agreement expires Dec. 1 and, absent substantial progress in talks over the next few weeks, the potential for a shutdown days before the Dec. 6-9 winter meetings in Orlando will grow. Some form of a lockout would keep teams from signings and trades, then if unresolved could delay the opening of spring camps and the start of the season. The uncertainty is also a factor, as teams are doing business under rules that may change, such as eligibility for arbitration and free agency, adoption of a universal DH, limitations on the number of pitchers on a roster and restrictions on shifting. And there could be changes with significant financial impact. Adoption of a salary “floor” could be a major issue for the Rays if they were forced to raise their payroll from their usual $70 million range to $100 million without getting additional revenue, and change their trade plans. “We’re operating under the way things are right now,” Neander said, “and if there are any changes that come from an agreement, we will be ready to adapt.”
Sunday: Gold Glove winners announced
Sunday or Monday: Players must be reinstated from 60-day injured list; free agency opens; options decided
Monday: BBWAA Award (Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, Cy Young, MVP) finalists announced
Monday-Nov. 11: GM meetings, Carlsbad, Calif.
Nov. 11: Silver Slugger Winners announced
Nov. 19: Deadline to add players to 40-man roster to be protected from Rule 5 draft
Dec. 1: Expiration of current collective bargaining agreement between owners and players
Dec. 2: Deadline to tender contracts to arbitration eligible and other players
Dec. 6-9: Annual winter meetings, Orlando
Feb. 15: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Port Charlotte
Feb. 26: Spring training opener, vs. Pirates, at Bradenton
March 31: Regular season opener, vs. Red Sox, at Boston
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