ST. PETERSBURG — More than just about anything else, the Rays consider themselves opportunistic.
Which is why they can go into an offseason openly saying their goal is to improve an offense in need of help and instead make an aggressive move by devoting a chunk of their limited resources to sign a starting pitcher — Zach Eflin, who agreed Thursday to a $40 million, three-year deal, pending a physical.
As team officials head to San Diego this weekend for the first in-person winter meetings since 2019, they will continue to look to add some proven hitters — signing Michael Brantley? trading for Sean Murphy? — but remain open to any and all moves they think will make them better for 2023, as they seek a fifth straight postseason appearance, and going forward.
“Like in any offseason, we recognize where we are competitively,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “At the end of the day, our best path to being the last team standing is to beat the other team by at least one as often as possible.
“We have that opportunistic bone in our body that will allow us to just maintain an open mind to anything that we think can help improve us. Sometimes that’s through a more acute and identifiable need. And sometimes that’s more through another channel that we think it’s the right player at the right time, the right opportunity and the right fit. We have to be able to function in all aspects in all areas to continue to make this team as competitive as it can be now and later.”
There are a few ways to address that acute need, which is to regain most of the 191 runs they dropped from 2021 to 2022.
Though Neander said a few weeks ago it would “be unwise” to stand pat and “just plan for better from our group,” they are counting on the returning hitters to make up a chunk of it.
That would be by getting full seasons from key players who missed extensive time due to injuries, such as second baseman Brandon Lowe (who played only 63 games), shortstop Wander Franco (83) and outfielder Manuel Margot (89). And getting more from young players who didn’t contribute much, like outfielder Josh Lowe.
But they also need help: Ideally, a veteran left-handed hitter with some power, which this offseason is a somewhat limited group, with a couple who will be priced too high for the Rays’ preference and a group of others who come with injury/production questions.
“We like the position-player group that we have, as well as some of the players that we expect to emerge from our minor-league system,” Neander said. “That group with better health is one that we think has plenty of ability to be closer to the 2021 output versus the 2022 output.
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“That being said, there’s ways that we think you can potentially better balance that group from the handedness. There’s things you can do to make that group a little more dynamic, a little more powerful, and a little more productive. … At the beginning of December, as we look ahead, those are still going to be things that we spend a lot of time thinking about, and identifying, pursuing things that we feel can achieve that.
“But we also have to be very open to anything that we think can help our team and not get too narrow-minded in those focuses,” Neander continued, “or we risk the opportunity to lose out on other things that could help us get better.”
Because of their defensive flexibility, the Rays could add a hitter at just about any position, though it would be most helpful at first base, catcher, corner outfield and/or designated hitter.
So, who would help them most?
Factoring in expected cost — and thus dropping Brandon Nimmo and maybe Andrew Benintendi from consideration — there is a group of veteran free-agent lefty hitters to pursue, each with some upside and injury/performance concerns: Cody Bellinger, Brandon Belt, Brantley, Michael Conforto and Joey Gallo.
From that group, Brantley, 35, seems the best fit, assuming he recovers from the right shoulder injury and subsequent surgery that limited him to 64 games with Houston last year. That’s given his track record (.298 career average, .794 OPS), veteran status and clubhouse leadership. Plus, manager Kevin Cash has familiarity with him from his days as a Cleveland coach. Brantley made $16 million each of the last four years.
Another move that could pay off big is trading with Oakland for Murphy, the top available catcher on the market. While the Rays typically don’t win bidding wars for free agents, they have enough appealing young big-leaguers and prospects to match any trade package if they want to, and it might take three or four.
Murphy, though a right-handed hitter, could boost their offense at a position where they don’t often get much without hurting their defense. He is coming off a season in which he hit .250 with 18 homers and a .759 OPS. Plus, he’s 28 and under team control for three seasons, projected to make a reasonable $3.5 million this year.
Christian Bethancourt, acquired from Oakland last year, played his way into the mix for this season, but the Rays could upgrade over him or Francisco Mejia with Murphy. Re-signing Mike Zunino is also a possibility. (The Rays’ three other big-league free agents, starting pitcher Corey Kluber, and outfielders Kevin Kiermaier and David Peralta, are expected to head elsewhere.)
Another reunion unlikely to be pursued is with ex-Ray Evan Longoria, at least for now, with a roster that includes right-handed hitters Yandy Diaz, Isaac Paredes and Harold Ramirez in the first base, third base and DH spots.
Offseason so far
The Rays have dropped 14 players from their roster since the end of the season, though none were overly surprising.
They allowed Zunino, Kiermaier, Kluber and Peralta to become free agents; traded relievers JT Chargois (Marlins) and Javy Guerra (Brewers), first baseman Ji-Man Choi (Pirates) and infielder Miles Mastrobuoni (Cubs); non-tendered lefty Ryan Yarbrough; and otherwise parted ways with reliever Nick Anderson (signed with Braves), outfielder Bligh Madris (claimed by Tigers), lefty Brendan McKay, outfielder Roman Quinn and reliever Jimmy Yacabonis.
The Rays’ full 40-man roster still includes 14 players eligible for arbitration and the related raises. So, more pruning could come from that group, potentially one of the lefty relievers — Jalen Beeks or Colin Poche — of the four they have overall. Other potential candidates could include reliever Shawn Armstrong and Mejia.
Some years it takes resolution of the top-shelf free agents to spur the market for others, as well as trades. Entering the weekend, the only ones to sign elsewhere were first baseman Jose Abreu, who left the White Sox for the Astros; and pitcher Jacob deGrom, who went from the Mets to the Rangers. Among the big names still waiting for the right big-bucks deal (and their 2022 teams): outfielders Aaron Judge (Yankees) and Nimmo (Mets); pitchers Carlos Rodon (Giants) and Justin Verlander (Astros); and shortstops Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox), Carlos Correa (Twins), Dansby Swanson (Braves) and Trea Turner (Dodgers). The Rays have some interest in the outcomes, as Judge and Bogaerts were key parts of division rivals.
Rule 5 fever
The annual draft of experienced minor-leaguers not on 40-man rosters, back after a one-year hiatus, tends to highlight one of the Rays’ good problems to have — too many talented young players. After adding five prospects to their roster and trading three others, the Rays, per Baseball America, still have several who could be taken Wednesday for the $100,000 fee, with the proviso of being kept in the majors: lefty reliever Jose Lopez, infielders Ronny Simon and Austin Shenton, and outfielders Heriberto Hernandez and Kameron Misner. … The Rays can’t make a pick unless they clear a spot on their 40-man roster.
Hall call for McGriff?
Tampa native Fred McGriff’s 493 home runs and clean reputation weren’t enough to get him elected to the Hall of Fame during 10 years on the writers’ ballot.
Now he’s got another chance, and seemingly a better shot, as one of eight players who will be considered by the 16-member Contemporary Era committee.
Others on the ballot are Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling.
Voting will take place Sunday, with 12 needed for election (and a limit of three choices per voter). Results will be announced at 8 p.m. on MLB Network.
The committee includes Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Jack Morris, Ryne Sandberg, Lee Smith, Frank Thomas and Alan Trammell; major-league executives Paul Beeston, Theo Epstein, Arte Moreno, Kim Ng, Dave St. Peter and Ken Williams; and veteran media members Steve Hirdt, LaVelle Neal and Susan Slusser.
McGriff, 59, had a 19-year controversy-free career that included seven straight top-10 league MVP finishes and a World Series title with Atlanta. He had two stints with his hometown Rays, and also played for the Blue Jays, Padres, Cubs and Dodgers.
Several of the candidates come with blemishes from off-field issues. Also in McGriff’s favor is that he played with or for four committee members: Beeston, Jones, Maddux, Williams.
With limited options to relocate 2023 spring training from storm-damaged Port Charlotte, the Rays could end up splitting their camp between sites, such as starting at the Disney complex (and basing their minor leaguers there) then shifting to play most of their home games at Tropicana Field. (neither Al Lang Stadium nor the old Naimoli complex are available.) …. The Red Sox, per several reports, offered Eflin the same $40 million, three-year deal the Rays signed him for, but he preferred to stay in his native Florida, which just happens to have no state income tax. … Outfielder Ronny Arozarena, the 20-year-old brother of the Rays’ Randy, was among six Cuban players declared free agents Friday by the commissioner’s office. … Rays players and staff voted full shares of playoff money got $8,387; the World Series-winning Astros got $516,347. ... The hiring of Triple-A Durham’s new manager could be completed in the next week. … One-time Rays prospect Drew Strotman, traded with Joe Ryan to Minnesota in the July 2021 Nelson Cruz deal, re-signed a minor-league deal with the Giants, who got him off waivers from the Rangers, who got him off waivers from the Twins.
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