The Rays caught your attention a few months ago, openly acknowledging what seemed obvious to outsiders, that they were looking for a hitter to bolster their offense.
But with the start of spring training three weeks away, and just about all the obvious names crossed off the list, it now seems likely the Rays will open camp with no help added.
During a winter of free-agency frenzy across the industry, and a limited number of intriguing trades, the Rays — in signing starter Zach Eflin — made fewer deals than infielder Carlos Correa, who hooked up with the Giants, Mets, then Twins.
So now the Rays want your trust.
• That they truly sought to add a big bat, going back to baseball operations president Erik Neander’s candid admission after they were bounced from the first round of the playoffs — having scored one run in 24 innings — that “to sit here and to suggest that we’re good as is and we’ll just plan for better from our group next year would be unwise.”
• That they tried hard, preferably to find a lefty hitter with some experience, past success and stature. That the interest and offers (dollars/players) they put out there — most intently for free agents Michael Brantley and Brandon Belt, as well as for traded catcher Sean Murphy (a righty swinger) — were legitimate. And that they were right in walking away when the price exceeded their preference.
• And that they honestly believe the young and previously injured players already on their roster have a better chance to help than some lower-cost and/or higher-risk options (injury/down years) they chose to not pursue. That there was no merit in making moves just to do so, adding players they didn’t consider clear upgrades who would just block the path for their internal options. And that they aren’t just saying so because it’s a convenient cover for their inaction.
“Every word that was said was meant,” Neander said. “All the intentions, those were sincere. There’s things that we explored. There were pursuits made within free agency for the right type of player to fit us.
“As the winter went on, and as we spoke publicly, I think the focus was more on an established player, ideally left-handed, being the right type of player for our group.
“We feel really good about the assortment of breakthrough and bounce-back players we have on our roster currently. It was really more about adding an established, consistent offensive player, and there aren’t that many of them out there that are available.”
Neander made clear that the Rays continue seeking ways to bolster the offense, to make up some of the 200 runs they dropped from 2021 to 2022. “There’s no deadlines on improving our team,” he said.
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That means they’ll keep looking over the next few weeks, and throughout the spring, for a potential trade. (Just last year, two players acquired during camp, Harold Ramirez and Isaac Paredes, ended up among their most productive.)
And, maybe more likely, over the first few months of the season, after they see how those young and previously injured players perform and can judge if they still need help. In theory, there could be more hitters available at the July deadline than now. And presumably the Rays will have room to add to a roughly $70 million payroll.
So for now, that means their bid to get better is banking on breakthroughs by some of their young/unestablished players and bounce backs by key players who were injured or inconsistent last year.
That first group is led, most notably, by lefty-swinging outfielder Josh Lowe and infielder Jonathan Aranda. And there is some merit, and history, to giving second and third chances to talented players who had success in the minors but haven’t clicked yet in the majors. Outfielder Luke Raley is among others who could get a shot, and they’ll look at some of their prospects.
The other group includes known quantities such as Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe, who have shown their immense ability, but were limited and/or sidelined by injuries last year. There’s also a few more of them, and some who had down years, such as Francisco Mejia.
“It’s something if we do not make any moves, it’s a matter of us making the most with the group we have,” Neander said.
“And it probably means giving a little more opportunity to the players that got their first taste last year. And trying to do everything we can to put them in a position to take that step forward and establish themselves the way that someone like Paredes did last year.”
Maybe over the next few weeks they’ll have to be nudged to trade somewhat uncomfortably from an area of strength, say dealing a starter such as Drew Rasmussen or Jeffrey Springs for a hitter. Go for a less proven lefty bat without the been-there, done-that resume they’d prefer. (The Cards and Twins have some.) Or take a shot with a bargain from what’s left on the free-agent rack.
“We really like the puzzle pieces,” Neander said. “Is it a complete puzzle? Not quite. But we like what we have. We’ll continue to look for ways to complete it, and be open-minded. That’s not going to stop at any point.”
Maybe, between the breakthroughs and bounce backs, standing pat will work out. Or it could prove to be unwise.
Bats on the move
Here is a list of some of the lefty/switch hitters who were free agents this winter and signed elsewhere. (listed by annual average salary):
OF Brandon Nimmo, Mets:* $162 million, 8 years
1B Anthony Rizzo, Yankees:* $40 million, 2 years
OF Michael Conforto, Giants: $36 million, 2 years
OF/1B Cody Bellinger, Cubs: $17.5 million, 1 year
1B/DH Josh Bell, Guardians: $33 million, 2 years
OF Andrew Benintendi, White Sox: $75 million, 5 years
OF/DH Michael Brantley, Astros:* $12 million, 1 year
OF/DH Joey Gallo, Twins: $11 million, 1 year
1B/DH Brandon Belt, Blue Jays: $9.3 million, 1 year
INF Adam Frazier, Orioles: $8 million, 1 year
1B/DH Carlos Santana, Pirates: $6.725 million, 1 year
INF/DH Matt Carpenter, Padres: $12 million, 2 years
INF Jeimer Candelario, Nationals: $5 million, 1 year
INF Jace Peterson, A’s: $9.5 million, 2 years
C Tucker Barnhart, Cubs: $6.5 million, 2 years
OF/DH Corey Dickerson, Nationals: $2.25 million, 1 year
1B/OF/DH Dominic Smith, Nationals: $2 million, 1 year
1B Eric Hosmer, Cubs: $720,000, 1 year
INF Tommy La Stella, Mariners: $720,000, 1 year
(*- re-signed with 2022 team)
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