ST. PETERSBURG — The wounds are too fresh and the hours of sleep still too few for Rays officials to have any detailed, specific plan about how next year’s team might look.
As manager Kevin Cash and top baseball operations executives Erik Neander and Peter Bendix sat in a makeshift interview room Monday at Tropicana Field, it was clear they were still processing the team’s stunning ouster from last week’s Wild Card Series.
But they have some ideas about 2024.
One, Neander said, is to run it back with mostly the same group.
“We have the ability to do that,” Neander said. “And that’s a nice starting point to have — 99 wins with contributions from as many players as we did this year, players that established themselves, young players getting their first opportunities. It puts us at a really strong position.”
Doing so would require a massive financial commitment from ownership. The payroll if the Rays keep the bulk of the team intact would expand to nine digits for the first time in franchise history. Pending resolution of 16 potential arbitration cases, it could reach $120 million.
Still, Neander — presumably with the blessing of his bosses and principal owner Stuart Sternberg — said that would not be prohibitive.
“If we think that’s what’s best, not just for next year, but the years ahead, to figure out a way to not be up here (on the podium doing a season postmortem) after two postseason games, I think the option will be on the table to run that back,” Neander said.
“Reasonably confident that if we think that’s the best path to winning a World Series, that that will be an option for us. We’ll see what the winter brings and how that all plays out. But we’ll have that freedom and flexibility if we think it’s best.”
Continuity helped with adversity
The Rays kept most of the team that ended the 2022 season together for 2023 and felt the continuity was a benefit. Especially as they dealt with a relocated spring training split between the Disney complex and the Trop, a steady string of injuries to key players, a mid-July slump that knocked them from atop the American League East and shortstop Wander Franco’s legal issues, which sidelined him from mid-August on.
“Arguably a historic amount of adversity,” Neander said.
Bringing the group back for another season would mean:
• Keeping rather than trading starter Tyler Glasnow and his franchise-record $25 million salary on a one-year deal
• Potentially hanging on to both veteran outfielder Manuel Margot, who will make a position player-high $10 million but not have a starting role; and All-Star Randy Arozarena, who projects to get $9 million via his second of four years of arbitration eligibility
• Sticking with second baseman Brandon Lowe as his salary rises to $8.75 million
• Paying arbitration-driven prices for starter Aaron Civale ($4.6 million) and outfielder/DH Harold Ramirez ($4.4 million), who aren’t star quality
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Plus, the Rays will owe about $11 million for three injured pitchers — Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen, who will miss at least the first half of 2024; and Shane McClanahan, out until 2025.
Change in philosophy?
That seems like a philosophical change, given the Rays’ $78.245 million opening-day payroll in 2022 is the franchise high. Or a new plan based on the 27.7% attendance increase in 2023 or the agreement for a new $1.3 billion downtown St. Petersburg stadium as part of a redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District.
But Neander said it would just be an extension of the flexibility Sternberg affords the front office to operate, such as signing pitcher Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million contract in December 2018 or the reported $150 million, six-year offer in spring 2022 for first baseman Freddie Freeman, who signed with the Dodgers.
Going big in one year may mean cutting back in others.
“With Stu’s leadership, there’s always been that kind of opportunistic bone that he has in him, that if the timing is right we pursued some bigger expenses and things that have and haven’t happened,” Neander said.
“If the timing’s right — right player, right team, right time — there’s always that ability to push. It’s probably going to come from somewhere at a later date. But there is a fluidity to our payrolls and things, there’s a freedom to it, that allow us to be more competitive if the right circumstances suggest we should make that run. So, we’ll see. It’s very similar, but this one will test us a little bit.”
More likely, the Rays, who started this season with a $71.5 million payroll, will mix things up and trade at least a few of their current players. They are deep in infielders and have more in the minors, though Franco’s status and the $172 million still due on his contract could be factors.
If they deal Glasnow, they’d likely need to get another starting pitcher. A frontline catcher would seem to be a wise addition.
“Every offseason is unique,” Neander said. “A lot of it will depend on what the other 29 teams are looking to do in addition to what we think is best for us. So, very TBD. Not much of an answer, but a lot of it is you’ve got to be ready to go in whatever direction the winter takes us. But we can run this group back. And it’s a good starting position.”
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