The biggest question in my mind right now - and probably in the mind of all Rays fans - is, "What are the Rays going to do this off-season?" Are they going to stand pat, content with their team's youth and willing see how everyone develops? Will they be aggressive in the free agents market? Will they be making high profile trades? While it's impossible to say for sure what the Rays are going to do, we can take some pretty darn good guesses.
Before we begin, though, we need to take know where the Rays stand. As we discussed last week, the Rays have a max of around $10-13 million to spend this off-season to build their 2011 roster. They are full of depth and talent at third base, shortstop, second base, catcher, and the outfield, leaving holes only at first base and the DH position. Our rotation is jammed to the gills, needing to find room to slide in wünderboy Jeremy Hellickson, and our bullpen has very few guaranteed returning members.
That's where we are currently, so next: where do we want to be? The common public perception is that the Rays are going to use 2011 as a rebuilding year, dropping down in competitiveness after losing big players like Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano. If this was the case, then the Rays wouldn't need to make any large moves this off-season. Sit back, let the young players develop, and fill all holes internally with our Triple-A depth. However, I don't believe that's what the Rays are going to do.
As they stand, the Rays are still a very good team, probably with a true-talent level somewhere in the 82-89 win range. While that might be enough to compete in other divisions, in the AL East it's only good enough for third place and a seat on the sofa for the playoffs. Crazy things can happen, though, like the Red Sox losing their entire roster to injuries, and the Rays are still a strong enough team to remain competitive and in the race all season long. That said, I can guarantee that Andrew Friedman isn't just focused on 2012 - he'll want to make the 2011 team as competitive as possible while not sacrificing the long-term future of the team. He may not be able to go "all-in" like he did this season, he can still make some significant changes and improvements to the Rays using the resources available to him.
And so, knowing how Andrew Friedman has worked in the past, let's take a stab at his off-season To Do List. What should we expect out of this off-season?
1. Find a slugger / first baseman.
Every fan wants to see their team go out and have a decadent off-season, throwing money around and acquiring big-name players, but that hasn't been the Rays' style in recent years. Instead of shooting for the best free agent talents available, the Rays have sat back and let the market work itself out. Let the teams with the deep pocketbooks sign players to huge, long-term extensions - extensions that almost always look silly after 4-5 years - and the Rays will sit back and pick up all the undervalued scraps. The Rays have a great talent for player evaluation, so this strategy has worked for them in the past (like with Carlos Pena and Joaquin Benoit), but it is riskier and so it can backfire easily as well (ugh, Pat Burrell).
With Carlos Pena leaving, the Rays do need a big bat in the middle of their line-up. They have a glaring hole at first base that could be filled internally - Dan Johnson, Ben Zobrist, and Leslie Anderson are all possible solutions - but my guess is the Rays go out to acquire a slugger that can play either at first base or DH. Will the Rays spend a large amount of money on this hole? No, we're not going to be signing Paul Konerko anytime soon, but that doesn't mean we can't find a good deal out there.
2. Build a cheap bullpen.
Looking at the Rays' roster right now, I only see three bullpen members that are under team control for the 2011 season: J.P. Howell, Jake McGee, and Andy Sonnanstine. Everyone else is a free agent (or in Dan Wheeler's case, will be a free agents once the Rays decline his $4M option), meaning the Rays have at least four spots in the bullpen to fill. The Rays do have plenty of bullpen options waiting in Triple-A - Dale Thayer, Winston Abreu, and R.J. Swindle jump to mind - but they could use more depth. Expect the Rays to sign many cheap bullpen arms, offering lots of players small contracts or minor league deals, allowing them to build up depth in case of injury or ineffectiveness. Also, I wouldn't be surprised is Grant Balfour or Randy Choate re-signed with us.
3. Shop Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett.
As much as I love both players, it's a matter of resource allocation. Both Garza and Bartlett will make more than $5M in 2010, while their spots can be easily filled with Jeremy Hellickson and Reid Brignac. Hellickson and Brignac likely won't be as good as Garza and Bartlett out of the gate (although you could make the argument that they might be), but that doesn't matter - they're our future, while Bartlett and Garza will hit free agency in only two years. If trading these two can net us some major-league ready prospects, much like the Scott Kazmir - Sean Rodriguez trade, then it's what needs to happen.
Hold onto Shop BJ Upton
(Ed. Note: Since publishing, I've changed my position on this.)
What to do with Upton? He'll be getting a raise his off-season and we have more than enough outfield depth (Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Ben Zobrist), so many people want to see him traded. However, it's unlikely that we'd get a good deal for him considering how much of his value is tied to his defense, and his swing was finally back on track by the end of the season. Now is the Rays' last chance to lock Upton up for a below-market-value contract, maybe shooting for a three-year, $15-18M deal. If Upton still doesn't sign, then I believe we should try to shop him
at the trading deadline or next off-season this off-season. The off-season market for centerfielders is shallow, and Upton could be the most enticing player on the market. This could be our best shot to get a good value for Upton, so if a good deal comes along, the Rays should jump on it.
Anyway, that's my best guess of Friedman's off-season checklist. Any thoughts?