ST. PETERSBURG — As top Rays baseball officials head to Arizona this week for the annual GM meetings that coincide with the start of roster maneuvering for 2024, they’re still stung by the sudden ending to last season with the Wild Card Series sweep by the eventual World Series champion Rangers.
“Honest answer,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said Friday night. “Look, it is what it is. You’ve got to accept it. And you can’t waste time dwelling on it if it comes at the cost of putting energy into getting ready for next year. But it still stinks.”
How to change the outcome, after being knocked out in their first round of postseason play for a third straight season, has been and will continue to be a subject of ample thought and exploration.
But the more immediate focus is how and how much to change the team that won 99 games despite a slew of injuries to key players and the absence of their best, Wander Franco, from mid-August on due to allegations of inappropriate relationships with minors.
There are some clear needs — a catcher to pair with Rene Pinto, a starter (or two) for a rotation missing Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen for at least half the season and Shane McClanahan for all of it, perhaps a middle infielder pending Franco’s status and Taylor Walls’ recovery from right hip surgery.
There also are some likely trade candidates based on rising salaries and changing roles, such as starter Tyler Glasnow ($25 million), outfielder Manuel Margot ($10 million) and DH Harold Ramirez (a projected $4.4 million).
Neander has said the Rays have the flexibility with ownership to keep the team relatively intact even though that would push the payroll, which has never exceeded even $80 million on opening day, to around $130 million. (Though a season in which they won’t have their best starter, as McClanahan rehabs from elbow surgery, and as of now don’t know Franco’s availability, may not be the wisest time to play that card.)
So, do they expect to do a little this offseason, or a lot?
“Good question,” Neander said. “I’m not sure.”
In a way, that’s what they’re going to find out over the next few weeks as they get a sense of the level of trade interest in Glasnow and others (following a quiet overall market last winter), and what free agent bargains could be had.
“Just kind of using history as a guide, we expect to have a really competitive club, as we’ve carried for most of the Rays era (since 2008). That is the intention,” Neander said.
“I think it’s also reasonable to expect that it’ll have a different look to it, because most of them have, right? I think that’ll continue. How it looks different will take us getting into the offseason here, just kind of seeing where it takes us and what we need to be responsive to.
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“We have a lot of really good talent, we’ve got great people, and we’re in a really good position of strength here to start the winter.”
Expectation around the game is that the Rays will trade Glasnow. But there also is a case for keeping him, banking on a big season, especially as they’re already short impact starters, and getting a high draft pick (just after the first round) for 2025 when he leaves as a free agent. Or even working out a deal to keep him, as he has said he’d like to stay.
What they won’t do, Neander said, is care what others think.
“We’re going to prioritize doing what we think is best for our organization and our players, and whatever noise or expectations are beyond the walls of what we have going on with our group isn’t going to sway us much one way or another,” he said.
“We have a hell of a group and one that we wouldn’t mind running back. But things can change over the course of the winter as they have in different winters. We have made difficult decisions over time; some have worked out well, some of them haven’t.
“Certainly those things could happen this winter as we look to stay competitive now and later. But I don’t anticipate any pressure in any particular regard above and beyond trying to put ourselves in the best position competitively and keep going.”
Frank Howard, who died last week at age 87, was the bench coach on the original Devil Rays staff. Though only there for the 1998-99 seasons, he made a huge impact sharing his life and baseball experiences.
Howard’s career started in 1958 with the Dodgers (where he roomed with Don Zimmer) and included 16 years as a player (also with the Senators/Rangers, Tigers), two as a manager and 18-plus as a big-league coach.
Former Rays players and staff shared memories and stories about his kindness, knowledge, blunt style and quirky personality (such as his preference to lift weights wearing only a jock strap, or traveling with only two outfits as he had one washed each day in the clubhouse). He was always cooperative with the media, and as a first-year beat writer it was quite a thrill when he used one of his favorite phrases and called you “Young Champion.”
Gold Glove winners will be announced Sunday night (ESPN, 7:30), with Walls a finalist at the utility position. Kevin Cash should be among the three AL Manager of the Year finalists, which will be released Monday as well as for the other BBWAA awards. … A first base coach hiring is close; internal candidates include minor-league managers Morgan Ensberg and Michael Johns and coaching/player development assistant director Alejandro Freire. … Video coordinator Chris “Chico” Fernandez was let go, having been with the team since the 1998 inaugural season. … Catcher Dominic Keegan, infielder Carson Williams and pitcher Logan Workman will rep the Rays in the Arizona Fall League Sunday Fall Stars Game (8 p.m., MLB Network, MLB.com, MLB app). Tampa Bay area products Jordan Leasure (White Sox) and CJ Eck (Blue Jays) are also playing. … With the Rangers celebrating their first World Series title, the Rays are in a group of five yet to win one, joined by the Brewers, Mariners, Padres and Rockies. … Reliever Robert Stephenson was 29th on Keith Law’s list for The Athletic of top 50 available free agents — with the notation “That slider’s going to make him a fair bit of money” — but didn’t make Jim Bowden’s top 40 on the same site or Mark Feinsand’s top 38 for mlb.com. … Law says right-hander Nick Martinez is a good fit for Tampa Bay. Bowden suggests starter Lucas Giolito and James Paxton (as well as utilityman Whit Merrifield and catcher/DH Mitch Garver). Feinsand mentions starter Jack Flaherty (who the Rays had interest in at the trade deadline). … The Rays will have the No. 21 pick in the 2024 draft. … With Franco’s status unclear, the Rays are hoping Walls will be ready by opening day. If he’s only a little late, they could use Osleivis Basabe or Junior Caminero as a short-term fill in at shortstop. … The first spring workout is Feb. 14 in Port Charlotte. ... BetMGM lists the Rays at 16-1 to be 2024 champs, tied for sixth best behind the Braves (13-2), Dodgers (8-1), Astros (9-1), Rangers (10-1) and Phillies (11-1). Also at 16-1 are the Blue Jays, Orioles, Padres and Yankees. FanDuel has the Rays at 13-1, DraftKings and betonline.ag at 20-1. … Nelson Cruz’s 2021 post-trade deadline stint with the Rays wasn’t very productive, but it was obvious why he was so well respected during the 19-year, 2,053-hit, 464-home run career he has decided, at age 43, to end.
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