That's what she said. But seriously, if you think the Rays started this season with a team that could win any division outside of the AL and NL East you were probably right, and I do not doubt they currently would not be atop any division other than the East. But if you think the East was difficult this year then wait until 2012.
We already know the Boston Red Sox are loaded and will not be losing much in the way of talent. The Sox also have a good front office and a nice payroll to work with. The Yankees could possibly lose C.C. Sabathia but I do not see that happening with their deep pockets. The Toronto Blue Jays, who had a $70.5M payroll this year, could easily add to it seeing as how they had a $98M payroll just three seasons ago. They will already sport a ridiculous lineup and there is potential for them to go after a Prince Fielder or Jose Reyes type or drop the money on pitching, and their rotation 2012 projected roation is really in bad shape either. The Orioles are young and growing but their window appears to be in the 2013-2014 season unless they open up the pocket books.
The Rays will start the offseason with holes at first base, shortstop, and designated hitter. If B.J. Upton does not sign an extension he will more than likely be traded, leaving a big hole in left with Desmond Jennings moving over to center. One could argue that a Robinson Chirinos/John Jaso catcher platoon is a hole but I think it has potential and the Rays have too many holes to go out and get a catcher especially with a thin crop in next year's free agent market. We also know that there won't be much offensive help from the farm system
So, what can the Rays do to improve their 2012 team without opening the pocket books too much? Looks like we are back to the trade talk and bargain bin. The Rays have a surplus of arms and currently have a 6-man rotation, which is ridiculous but I won't get into that. Matt Moore is ready for the Majors but we know the Rays move guys along slowly. Alex Torres is also knocking on the door. That gives the Rays 8 legitimate starters that are all under team control for 2012.
A likely scenario is to see the Rays trade Jeff Niemann, who is building value every time he pitches lately. He hsa dropped his ERA more than two runs in July and has a 1.06 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 34 July innings. Oh, he has also pitched much better away than at home. With three years of team control left he could be a very valuable asset on the trade market in the offseason. Would the Rays spin him for more prospects or a major league bat? I would hope a bat. Would the Reds consider Yonder Alonso? The Twins Denard Span? The Royals Billy Butler? Assuming Upton is traded what will he bring in return? Another bat? Probably prospects, leaving the Rays with holes to fill via the bargain bin.
Assuming the Rays fill their first base void with a deal involving Niemann for Yonder Alonso they would still need to fill LF, SS, and DH. I just do not see Casey Kotcham coming back unless he signs a ridiculously cheap hometown deal. I would like to see him back on a cheap deal but he is likely to get more on the open market than what the Rays will offer. Here are the guys I would like to see the Rays target:
Shortstop: After Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are signed there is a significant drop off at short. J.J. Hardy is off the market and the next best option may be Rafael Furcal, who is having a bad year, but could be had on a one-year deal. Only problem is everyone needs a shortstop and deeper pockets could net him on a one year deal for far more than the Rays would shell out. Other than Furcal I would sadly rather see Sean Rodriguez be the everyday short stop. Rays either get Furcal on a one year deal or go with their internal options. Shortstop is not looking too pretty.
Left Field: The best options out there are Carlos Beltran, Nick Swisher, and Josh Willingham. Swisher and Willingham are both type-A free agents so they are out the door and Beltran might command way too much money, although I would love to have him in left and get a rest at DH to keep his bat in the lineup. After that group the Rays could go bargain hunting for Conor Jackson (who also plays a good first base), David DeJesus (type-B), or even J.D. Drew. Andruw Jones and Scott Hairston could be options but not in a full-time role.
DH: David Ortiz is the best available DH out there. Not happening. Lance Berkman could fit and play a little 1B but he likes the NL Central and the Cards will need a 1B if they cannot re-sign Albert Pujols. I prefer to keep this as a revolving door to give players a rest from the field. This leaves the Rays with having to sign another position player, probably a 1B or COF, unless they want to see Johnny Damon hack at every pitch in his effort to reach 3000 hits. There are a lot of options here: Andruw Jones, Jonny Gomes, Kosuke Fukudome, Jason Kubel, Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome, Magglio Ordonez, Russell Branyan, and Jason Giambi
The Rays have a lot of shuffling to do to stay competitive in the AL East next year. I would like to see Upton and Kotchman in Rays uniforms and see the Rays trade for Alonso and rotate the DH spot but I just do not see it. If we are lucky we could see a lineup somewhat like this:
1. Jennings (CF)
2. Zobrist (2B)
3. Longoria (3B)
4. Joyce (RF)
5. Alonso (1B)
6. Jackson/Drew/Jones (LF)
7. Jackson/Drew/Jones (DH)
8. Chirinos/Jaso (C)
9. Furcal/Rodriguez (SS)
You could switch it up however you want but with a top-heavy free agent market and not a lot of money to spend the Rays have a tough offseason in front of them. But isn't the allure of what our front office can do what keeps us Rays coming back?