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Why Rays have a lot to think about as they head to winter meetings

The chance to keep a 99-win squad relatively intact at a record payroll is offset by the potential to make trades that cut salary but keep the team competitive.
 
Erik Neander, baseball operations president, left, with manager Kevin Cash, says the Rays "have to be prepared for everything" this time of year when it comes to potentially dealing players.
Erik Neander, baseball operations president, left, with manager Kevin Cash, says the Rays "have to be prepared for everything" this time of year when it comes to potentially dealing players. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 2, 2023|Updated Dec. 2, 2023

As usual, the Rays will head to the winter meetings with myriad options to consider.

That includes everything from standing relatively pat and rolling into 2024 with a by-far franchise-record $125 million payroll to trading some obvious candidates — Tyler Glasnow, Manuel Margot, Harold Ramirez — and potentially others with notable salaries while still remaining a playoff-caliber team.

“We just won 99 games and we have a chance to return (just about) everybody,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “We have really good players. We expect to be very competitive. … If history is any guide, it’ll probably look a little different, but the expectations will be similar.

“But in terms of what that means, we haven’t done anything yet. So wait and see what this week brings. (There’s) a lot of moving pieces. When you have good players, there’s plenty of interest, without getting into any of the specifics. (There are) just a lot of different paths we could potentially go down; just trying to determine which ones are our best to maintain our competitiveness for this year and certainly beyond.”

Here are five topics that impact their deliberations and decisions:

The $25 million question

Starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow is getting quite a bit of interest from other teams.
Starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow is getting quite a bit of interest from other teams. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

In Glasnow, the Rays have one of the game’s most valued commodities: A front-line starting pitcher on a short-term deal (one year for $25 million).

Interest has been strong and growing, and given the volume of activity already in the starting pitcher market, a deal during or shortly after the meetings seems possible.

But here’s the hitch: If the Rays trade Glasnow, they need to find another starter to take a spot, if not his spot, in the rotation.

The same market factors that make Glasnow appealing to trade — back-end starters getting $12-13 million-plus a year and front-liners Blake Snell and Yoshinobu Yamamoto reportedly pushing for $200 million long-term deals — will make it tougher for the Rays to replace him.

The easiest solution would be to a get a rotation-ready starter back in a trade, but the Rays likely won’t make that a prerequisite. They’d prefer to maximize their return for Glasnow and then, if necessary, find a starter or two and some needed Triple-A depth elsewhere.

Money matters

Considering his salary, Manuel Margot would seem to be on his way out.
Considering his salary, Manuel Margot would seem to be on his way out. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Since the start of the offseason, Neander has insisted the Rays could handle the roughly $125 million it would take to keep the team intact, even though that’s $45 million-plus more than they’ve ever spent to open a season.

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But doing so wouldn’t leave any room for in-season additions and likely would come at a future cost as they have a rolling payroll budget.

And 2024 might not be the year to max out with their best starter (Shane McClanahan) sidelined and the legal status of their best position player (Wander Franco) uncertain.

Given the emergence of some of their younger (and cheaper) players such as Josh Lowe, Curtis Mead, Jonathan Aranda, Osleivis Basabe and (if not now then soon) Junior Caminero, they might decide to cut further without feeling they had reduced their ability to compete.

Trading Glasnow, Margot (a position player-high $10 million salary, plus a $2 million 2025 option buyout, as the fourth/fifth outfielder), and Ramirez (a projected $4.4 million via arbitration as a DH) would trim about $40 million, though adding an established starter would offset some of the savings.

So who else could go?

The Rays’ philosophy is to listen on just about anyone they get asked about and see where talks could lead, which is why you’ll hear rumors and reports of players being “shopped” when it’s just exploratory conversations. In their view, it would be wrong not to engage, similar to how they inquire on every available player, even if the cost seems prohibitive, just in case something lines up.

Plus, they’re always (wisely) looking ahead, willing to move some players before they get too expensive — and thus less appealing to other teams.

So as popular as Randy Arozarena is, as productive as Isaac Paredes has been, as powerful as a healthy Brandon Lowe can be, they could all be talked about — and potentially dealt. As could others.

Arozarena, the engaging All-Star outfielder, is projected to make $9 million in his second of four years of arbitration. Brandon Lowe, who has had several injury issues, is due $8.75 million, plus a $1 million buyout or $10.5 million 2025 option. Paredes, coming off a 31-homer breakout season, is projected to make $3.2 million in his first of four years of arbitration. Though they need starters, Aaron Civale’s projected $4.6 million salary in his second of three years of arbitration is worth noting.

“You have to be prepared for everything,” Neander said.

As the roster churns

From left: Drew Rasmussen (57), Shane McClanahan (18) and Jeffrey Springs (59) are rehabbing elbow injuries and won't be immediately available in 2024 (with McClanahan out until 2025).
From left: Drew Rasmussen (57), Shane McClanahan (18) and Jeffrey Springs (59) are rehabbing elbow injuries and won't be immediately available in 2024 (with McClanahan out until 2025). [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

With only one spot open and limited flexibility on their 40-man roster, trades are key to any major moves the Rays make.

That’s because five roster spots are being used during the offseason for players whose 2024 contributions are uncertain at best. That includes three pitchers rehabbing from elbow surgery who can’t go back on the injured list until spring training, with Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen targeted for second-half returns, McClanahan for 2025; 21-year-old starting prospect Yoniel Curet, who pitched at Class A last season; and All-Star shortstop Franco, whose status to return to play is still pending investigations of alleged inappropriate relationships with minors.

All of which is why much of their focus thus far has been on trades, needing to first open roster and payroll space if they want to pursue any free agents. “This is the week where things do tend to pick up and you start getting a better idea of what might be real at this point,” Neander said.

As much as they like the roster they have (second best behind the Braves in aggregate WAR, per fangraphs.com), they will be open to breaking it up if it helps for now and later.

“It’s a really good starting point, and we believe that,” Neander said. “In terms of the different directions an offseason can go, certainly when you’re retaining most of your talent, it can be dictated a little bit more by other teams’ interests and needs and winding up there. ...

“If this thing more or less stays intact as it is, that’s a perfectly fine outcome. If there’s ways that if a couple of teams can get help that involves trades, great. There’s certainly some players in free agency I would think would be nice fits for our club as well, but the extent of which, in some ways, it’s connected to what happens on the trade side of things.”

Pitching and catching

Starting pitcher Aaron Civale was a little up and down once he got into the Rays lineup this past season.
Starting pitcher Aaron Civale was a little up and down once he got into the Rays lineup this past season. [ CHRIS YOUNG | AP ]

With Glasnow, the Rays still seem a little thin on starters. Without him, clearly so.

The rotation would look something like this: Zach Eflin, Civale, Zack Littell, Taj Bradley and some combination of Shane Baz, Jacob Lopez and swing man Tyler Alexander.

All but Eflin come with questions. Civale was 5-2, 2.34 with Cleveland but 2-3, 5.36 after being traded. Littell was pushed to 104 innings as he transitioned back to starting. Bradley was inconsistent during his 5-8, 5.59 rookie season. Baz will have a limited workload returning from Tommy John surgery. Lopez has 12 1/3 big-league innings. Alexander is more of a multi-inning reliever who was waived by Detroit.

And while the Rays expect Springs back around midseason and Rassmussen in August (though perhaps as a reliever), they know better than to bank on that and will need to add some depth.

They do feel pretty good about filling out their bullpen from the group of right-handers (Jason Adam, Shawn Armstrong, Pete Fairbanks, Kevin Kelly, Andrew Kittredge and Manuel Rodriguez), and lefties (Alexander, Garrett Cleavinger and Colin Poche).

They also need another catcher, either to share time with Rene Pinto, who they remain extremely confident can be a front-liner, or provide depth behind Alex Jackson, who was re-signed to a minor-league contract. Given the thin free-agent options — Mitch Garver, Martin Maldonado and Gary Sanchez — a trade or a veteran on a minor-league deal is much more likely.

Wander wonder

The Rays are preparing for the roster they have, which won't include Wander Franco before MLB and Dominican Republic investigations are done (and possibly not after depending on the outcomes).
The Rays are preparing for the roster they have, which won't include Wander Franco before MLB and Dominican Republic investigations are done (and possibly not after depending on the outcomes). [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

With no updates since Franco was placed on administrative leave in mid-August (and procedurally reinstated to the roster in November), the Rays can only wait like everyone else to see if he is cleared to play or suspended/facing legal charges.

“I’m not going to address the specifics but I can in the context of roster building and it goes back to the conversations that we had during the season (when Franco was first sidelined),” Neander said. “You prepare with the players you have and that you know are going to be available and that’s something that we’re just continuing to maintain.”

As with last season, Taylor Walls would be the likely replacement, though he might not be ready to start the season as he recovers from right hip surgery. The Rays may opt to add another infielder (probably on a minor-league deal) who can play shortstop anyway, or they could turn to Basabe or Caminero as short-term fill-ins.

In the background of Franco’s onfield availability is the fate of the massive 11-year contract he signed in November 2021, with the Rays still owing him $174 million of guaranteed money.

Also from winter meetings

National perspective

Former Ray Blake Snell seems likely to land with a new team this offseason.
Former Ray Blake Snell seems likely to land with a new team this offseason. [ GENE J. PUSKAR | AP ]

The biggest story overall in Nashville will be Shohei Ohtani’s free agency with some (potentially wishful) thinking he will make his choice during the meetings. ... Other big names looking for big bucks and new homes include ex-Ray Snell, Yamamoto, Cody Bellinger, Josh Hader, Jordan Montgomery and Eduardo Rodriguez. And there’s 2023 Rays relievers Chris Devenski, Jake Diekman and Robert Stephenson, and former Rays Evan Longoria, Kevin Kiermaier and Tommy Pham. ... The marquee name on the trade market is San Diego outfielder Juan Soto; others of note, given potential impact on a Glasnow deal, are pitchers Shane Bieber (Guardians), Corbin Burnes (Brewers), Dylan Cease (White Sox).

Fame and glory

Tampa native and former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella hopes to finally get into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Tampa native and former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella hopes to finally get into the Baseball Hall of Fame. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]

Tampa’s Lou Piniella is among the leading candidates for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, with a 16-member contemporary era committee on Sunday also considering managers Cito Gaston, Davey Johnson and Jim Leyland; umpires Ed Montague and Joe West; and executives Hank Peters and Bill White. Twelve votes are needed for election, with voters limited to three choices. The committee includes Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Bud Selig, Ted Simmons, Jim Thome, Joe Torre; current/former executives Sandy Alderson, Bill DeWitt, Michael Hill, Ken Kendrick, Andy MacPhail, Phyllis Merhige; and media members/historians Sean Forman, Jack O’Connell, Jesus Ortiz. Results are announced at 7:30 p.m.

Rays rumblings

With $10 tickets for every game again this season, the Rays also will look at bringing back a ballpark pass, with a set monthly or annual fee for standing room only access to all games. Details on that, and a “robust” promotional calendar, including theme and heritage nights, are expected closer to the February Fan Fest. … Arozarena was one of GQ Mexico’s 10 Men of the Year, based on his emergence as a star in the World Baseball Classic. … Glasnow was a runnerup for MLB’s American League Comeback Player of the Year award won by White Sox reliever Liam Hendriks. ... Rays officials are predictably not happy with former mayor Rick Baker’s push for the team name to be changed from Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg Rays as part of approval for a new stadium, as our John Romano addresses. ... Special assistant Bobby Heck will be honored at the meetings as the game’s East Coast Scout of the Year. ... The Rays don’t plan to have a replacement in the dugout for process and analytics coach Jonathan Erlichman, who is moving to a front office position. ... Lefty Josh Fleming, who was claimed off waivers by the Phillies, is now a free agent. As is Cooper Criswell, who is of interest to bring back. ... Noting their only trade has been with the Marlins, who are now run by ex-Rays GM Peter Bendix, Neander said: “So far we’ve been only been able to make trades with Peter, so we’ve got some work to do here.” ... Reliever Cole Sulser, who was dropped from the roster in November, signed a minor-league deal with the Mets. ... Former Rays outfielder and front office advisor Gabe Kapler joined the Marlins as an assistant GM.

Rays offseason so far

The Rays traded Vidal Brujan to the Marlins this offseason.
The Rays traded Vidal Brujan to the Marlins this offseason. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Acquired

LHP Tyler Alexander off waivers from Detroit

Added to roster

RHP Yoniel Curet, RHP Manuel Rodriguez, INF Austin Shenton

Traded

INF Vidal Brujan, RHP Calvin Faucher to Marlins; minor-league C Blake Hunt to Mariners; RHP Michael Mercado to Phillies

Lost on waivers

LHP Jalen Beeks to Rockies; C Christian Bethancourt to Guardians; LHP Josh Fleming to Phillies

Allowed to become free agents

RHP Cooper Criswell, RHP Chris Devenski, LHP Jake Diekman, INF Tristan Gray (signed with Marlins), RHP Erasmo Ramirez, RHP Robert Stephenson, RHP Cole Sulser (Mets), OF Raimel Tapia

Current 40-man roster

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Tyler Alexander plays during a baseball game, Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Tyler Alexander plays during a baseball game, Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) [ CARLOS OSORIO | AP ]

Pitchers (21): Jason Adam, Tyler Alexander, Shawn Armstrong, Shane Baz, Taj Bradley, Aaron Civale, Garrett Cleavinger, Yoniel Curet, Zach Eflin, Pete Fairbanks, Tyler Glasnow, Kevin Kelly, Andrew Kittredge, Zack Littell, Jacob Lopez, Shane McClanahan, Colin Poche, Drew Rasmussen, Manuel Rodriguez, Jeffrey Springs, Colby White

Catcher (1): Rene Pinto

Infielders (11): Jonathan Aranda, Osleivis Basabe, Junior Caminero, Yandy Diaz, Wander Franco, Greg Jones, Brandon Lowe, Curtis Mead, Isaac Paredes, Austin Shenton, Taylor Walls

Outfielders (5): Randy Arozarena, Josh Lowe, Manuel Margot, Luke Raley, Jose Siri

DH (1): Harold Ramirez

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