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AL East becoming more of a beast is not good for Rays

Tales | Erik Neander says they’re used to the challenge, but offseason moves by some teams could make for a long summer in Tampa Bay.
 
Juan Soto's joining the Yankees, which makes New York a formidable foe in the Rays' division.
Juan Soto's joining the Yankees, which makes New York a formidable foe in the Rays' division. [ K.C. ALFRED | The San Diego Union-Tribune ]
Published Dec. 10, 2023|Updated Dec. 10, 2023

Juan Soto is already with the Yankees, and Shohei Ohtani apparently gave strong consideration to the Blue Jays before deciding Saturday to stay on the West Coast and sign with the Dodgers for $700 million over 10 years.

The Yankees are happy, and the Jays likely will move on to another big-name pursuit. Though not as dramatic, initial offseason moves also seem constructive for the Orioles, showing they’re willing to spend some to defend their American League East title, and for the Red Sox, under new leadership from Craig Breslow.

None of this is particularly good for the Rays.

“We say this a lot, and I do think it just is what it is. This division, the AL East, especially now, there’s five really good clubs,” Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander said.

“There’s teams with a lot of history of being successful. This is a division where in any given year somebody is stepping forward and is going to make a move that impacts their club in the near term in a really impactful way, a positive way.

“The names change each year, but in terms of talent coming into this division — be it talent that’s being developed from organizations from within or that’s being brought in from the outside — it is one of the constants that comes with competing in a division as challenging as this one.”

Shohei Ohtani speaks with Kazuhiro Nakai, who is the consulate general of Japan in Miami, before competing against the Rays at Tropicana Field  in 2022.
Shohei Ohtani speaks with Kazuhiro Nakai, who is the consulate general of Japan in Miami, before competing against the Rays at Tropicana Field in 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

After seeing the Yankees finish with their worst record (82-80) since 1992, and the heat they were getting for it, owner Hal Steinbrenner said ominously that “big changes” were coming.

His comments were aimed more at processes and best practices, but corresponded to a significant addition to the lineup in bringing in Soto, one of the game’s most dynamic offensive players.

The Yankees paid a heavy price in trading five players, in addition to a roughly $33 million salary, for one season before Soto will be a free agent (and they also got reserve outfielder Trent Grisham).

But the Yanks feel Soto’s bat will be worth it, as well as the message they sent in reasserting themselves as what general manager Brian Cashman called “the mecca of baseball” (and others refer to as the evil empire).

“It’s another manifestation of the Steinbrenner legacy,” Cashman said on a media call. “I think George Steinbrenner always felt that the best players in the world should play here for the New York Yankees. I think that was always what he tried to accomplish.

“There clearly was a match to be made here if we were willing to go all in. And thankfully the Steinbrenner DNA has always been there about being willing to go all in.”

The Jays could have trumped the Yankees if they ended up with Ohtani, who not only would have helped them on the field, but would have been a major boost to their business side in terms of merchandise, sponsorships and TV ratings, which extends across all of Canada. It will be interesting to see how they pivot to improve, as their already frustrated fan base will see the Ohtani outcome as another failed attempt.

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Facing Ohtani only three games a year as a Dodger (at Los Angeles this coming season, so next at the Trop in 2025) is obviously better for the Rays competitively. But there would have been some added excitement next spring had he signed with the Jays since they open the season at Tropicana Field with a four-game series that starts March 28.

While the Rays weren’t in this bidding, they had serious interest had Ohtani been made available for trade in July and were considering packaging top prospect Junior Caminero in a deal. It worked out well for the Rays to not happen; after the deadline the Rays lost Shane McClanahan to a season-ending injury, Wander Franco was sidelined pending investigations into alleged improper relationships with minors, and Ohtani hurt his elbow and needed surgery.

Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make.

Draft breeze

Though the Rays’ 99 wins were fourth most, they ended up with the No. 18 pick in the first round of the July draft. That was due primarily to convoluted lottery rules — as the Mets, Padres and Yankees, after not landing in the top six, were dropped 10 spots because they exceeded the second luxury tax tier — and also postseason finish. The Rays landed the top spot in the second group of competitive balance-round picks. Net result, they will have the Nos. 18, 59 and 69 picks.

Bitter for Lou

Tampa native and former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella in the office at his Tampa home, amid some of the memorabilia from his storied baseball career.
Tampa native and former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella in the office at his Tampa home, amid some of the memorabilia from his storied baseball career. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]

The private ballots and sworn secrecy among the 16 members of the Hall of Fame era committee considering executives, managers and umpires prevent us from knowing how they voted, much less why. Too bad, as it would be most interesting — given the similar stats — to know the thought process of the four who voted to elect Jim Leyland, but not Tampa’s 80-year-old Lou Piniella, who finished one vote shy of the needed 12 for the second straight time.

Candidates also are to be “considered for their overall contribution to the game” — which should have then factored in Piniella’s 18 seasons as a player, including two World Series championships with the Yankees. Leyland didn’t play in the majors.

Rays rumblings

Could the Rays strike a deal that sends Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers?
Could the Rays strike a deal that sends Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers? [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Two recently traded catchers who the Rays could have interest in trying to acquire: Kyle Higashioka (now with Padres) and Max Stassi (Braves). … The Dodgers sure seem like the right match for a Tyler Glasnow trade, and the close relationship between the front offices should facilitate that. … Rays president Brian Auld’s insistence the team won’t consider changing its first name from Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg sets up a showdown with City Council member Gina Driscoll, who added it to the agenda for Thursday’s meeting and wants to see it made part of the new stadium agreement. ... Baseball America’s top 10 prospect list includes Caminero, Carson Williams, Curtis Mead, Shane Baz, Xavier Isaac, top 2023 pick Brayden Taylor, Osleivis Basabe, Adrian Santana, Dominic Keegan, Yoniel Curet. …. The Rays and Rowdies on Monday launch their “Week of Giving” events throughout the area, including a toy drive, sports equipment donation, care packages and an adoption celebration. ... Ex-Ray Chris Archer said he’ll use his new job as a special assistant with the Dodgers to explore different areas and get a feel for whether he wants to work in player development, coaching or the front office. … Other ex-Rays seen at the meetings in assorted roles included Jonny Gomes and Randy Winn.

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