Rays look to again unearth free-agent bargains
Offseason acquisitions of Loney, Escobar paid dividends for 2013 campaign
ST. PETERSBURG -- Having to rebuild a team is a task the Rays' front office has grown familiar with -- and become very good at -- over the years.
So the work that needs to be done prior to the 2014 season won't be any different, particularly where free agents are concerned.
Tampa Bay fans have gotten accustomed to seeing favorites such as Carl Crawford, Grant Balfour, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano head to the green, green pastures available via free-agency dollars.
The fan base also has grown familiar with the front office accepting this plight, rolling up its sleeves and finding other players to fill the gaps, which can be challenging given the organization's financial constraints.
That's the Rays' playing field, so let the free-agent season begin. With the World Series over, teams have five days to deal exclusively with their own free agents. After that period, it's open season for all teams.
Prior to the 2013 season, the Rays were faced with finding a first baseman and a shortstop. They solved the shortstop issue via a trade with the Marlins that brought Yunel Escobar into the fold. Then they signed James Loney to fill the void at first. Both players came seemingly out of nowhere to become major cogs in Tampa Bay's fortunes.
The Rays have no tried-and-true philosophy for finding the free agents they desire at the price they can afford. Striking fast before the market is set can be a sound strategy, and there's also the tact of waiting until the calendar turns to a new year before getting busy. The latter of those options sometimes allows a team to sign a player -- who normally wouldn't be available -- to a one-year deal.
Players still available late usually are coming off down seasons. Because of that situation, they are forced to re-establish their value via the one-year deal, which essentially is what Loney did in 2013, and it can lead to a bargain for a team like Tampa Bay.
The most important free agents the Rays have signed in recent years have been the ones under the radar, who signed Minor League deals with invititations to Spring Training. Time and again, Tampa Bay has gone down that road, particularly with veteran relief pitchers, and come away with a prized free agent.
So don't expect the Rays to be at the top of the list of teams trying to sign marquee free agents, but there will be plenty of attention-worthy moves -- particularly for the savvy baseball fan -- as Tampa Bay assembles its 2014 crew.
Based on the team's nucleus and their needs, it's easy to expect next season's squad to again be a playoff contender.
Free agents: RHP Roberto Hernandez, DH/OF Luke Scott, RHP Fernando Rodney, 1B Loney, C Jose Molina, IF/OF Kelly Johnson, RHP Jesse Crain, RHP Jamey Wright, DH/OF Delmon Young.
Arbitration-eligible: LHP David Price ($10.11 million in 2013), RHP Jeff Niemann ($3 million), OF Matt Joyce ($2.45 million), OF/IF Sean Rodriguez ($1 million), OF Sam Fuld ($725,000), LHP Jake McGee ($506,200), RHP Jeremy Hellickson ($503,000), LHP Cesar Ramos ($501,300), C Chris Gimenez (NA), LHP Wesley Wright ($1.025 million), C Jose Lobaton ($496,500).
Club options: 2B Ben Zobrist ($7.25 million club option, $2.5 million buyout), David DeJesus ($6.5 million, $1.5 million), Escobar ($5 million), Juan Carlos Oviedo ($2 million, $30,000).
AREAS OF NEED
Starting pitching: Many feel that Price will be traded. After all, even the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner told reporters he didn't expect to be back in 2014. If he is traded, the Rays' rotation will be thinner than it has been in recent years -- particularly where eating innings is concerned. Left behind would be a rotation that includes Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Hellickson, Chris Archer, Niemann (depending on his progress from right-shoulder surgery) and Jake Odorizzi, with Enny Romero and Alex Colome pushing from below. But don't look for Tampa Bay to, as executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman would say, "go to market" for starting pitching. The Rays would likely target young pitching in any deal for Price, and they might sign a low-tiered innings-eater like they did in 2013 with Hernandez, perhaps even bringing him back for 2014.
First baseman: The Rays love Loney, but the question is: Will other teams? Loney makes contact, sprays the ball around and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. But he doesn't hit with traditional first baseman-like power. Tampa Bay covets what Loney brings to the table, but in the past, the club has not paid top dollar for free agents. If other teams don't value what Loney does, it's not a reach to think the Rays would try to bring him back. If they don't sign Loney, Tampa Bay will be in a similar situation at first base as the team was entering last offseason.
Closer: Rodney is a free agent. Despite an erratic 2013 season, he did quality work for the Rays during his two-season tenure. The Dominican native would like to return to Tampa Bay and has even hinted he would give the team a hometown discount to do so. Thus, he could return. However, if another team wants to bet big dollars that Rodney can return to his record-setting 2012 form, the Rays would not be able to compete with said interest. If Rodney goes elsewhere, Tampa Bay will have to either sign someone from the outside or find a closer from within the organization. Internal candidates include Joel Peralta and McGee, though the team could go to a closer by committee. There's also a chance the Rays can resurrect the career of Oviedo, who closed for the Marlins under the name of Leo Nunez and should be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery to his right elbow.
After an Opening Day payroll of just under $62 million in 2013, there would seem to be a good chance of a reduction based on the team's poor attendance this past season. Approximately $22 million would come off the books if Price is traded, they don't re-sign Scott and they don't exercise their option on DeJesus. While that appears logical, trying to figure out how Tampa Bay will put together its team is an exercise in futility. A good guess at the club's payroll would be $45 million to $50 million for 2014. And, as they have done in the past, the Rays have proven they can win at just about any payroll level.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.