The annual Winter Meetings will kick off in San Diego this morning, with the Rays sending a new leadership group - including new GM Matt Silverman, formerly president of operations, and new manager Kevin Cash, who flew down from Cleveland.
What traditionally has been the busiest time of year for the baseball world was slower last off-season, when a flurry of moves took place at the end of November. This year, there are plenty of massive pieces still on the table for the market to respond to.
James Shields, Jon Lester, or Max Scherzer could sign in the near future and prompt a flood of other pitching moves as pieces fall into place. The same could be true if a team like to Dodgers or Athletics execute a trade for a shortstop, something that could potentially involve the Rays. Then there are trade pieces that are expected but not yet moved, such as the glut of outfielders up in Fenway Park and under our Dome.
But first things first, we need some ground rules:
Will GM Silverman continue taking out Friedman's trash?
Silverman has done much to overhaul the Rays roster in little ways, many of which saw the Rays remove key players from the Friedman era: Jeremy Hellickson, Jose Molina, and Joel Peralta.
Hellickson was a player who succumbed to his peripheral stats that always indicated the bottom would fall out, and the other two names represent a lean toward more advanced stats to find value, which is absolutely not a bad thing and normally how the Rays find value with less to work with.
However, all three players also created frustration for us watching the game from home, and I mean with every step on the mound or into the batter's box. I can't say I'm sorry to see them go, and it appears Silverman was on the casual fan's side. Who replaces Hellickson and Molina could be resolved this week at the Winter Meetings, but it's worth noting Peralta has likely been already replaced by former-closer Ernesto Frieri.
Long time long-reliever Cesar Ramos and utility bench player Sean Rodriguez were also traded earlier in the off-season, satisfying that premise. They will each be replaced by rookies, likely SP Alex Colome and IF Nick Franklin.
What is left of the Friedman era that Silverman might want to wipe clean? And no, you can't answer, "the whole roster!" The first answer would be expiring contracts the Rays could replace with a lower cost (re: rooking contract). The only other players with one year left on their deals are UT Ben Zobrist, RP Grant Balfour, OF Matt Joyce:
- Zorilla is here to stay unless there's a serious overpay levied toward the Rays. There's not a mold for 5+ WAR utility players -- Zobrist is the original, and he can fill whatever void the Rays have on their roster come April.
- Balfour had a terrible year last season, under-performing his $7 million dollar contract, but would selling low on Balfour be a Rays move to make? It would be if the only concern was salary, but this weekend we learned the Rays will be allowed the flexibility to keep dollars on the roster, so long as they are under $80M. Balfour's mistakes from last season are not un-fixable, in fact they seemed almost entirely mental. He's an excellent bounce back candidate for next season.
- Joyce, on the other hand, holds value but also clogs the outfield depth. With one year left on his deal he is probably the easiest piece to move. He's been the defacto DH under Friedman, as that position was never able to be smartly filled, but then that is a struggle for most teams. This is Silverman's chance to give Joyce playing time elsewhere and establish his own DH, or if necessary, continue rotating outfielders without roster complications.
The rest of the roster is pretty sound. Long term contracts at great prices and rookie deals dominate the roster, including starting rotation slots 1-4 (and Matt Moore soon to return from injury). Who earns the fifth starting slot could be up for grabs, as Hellickson was already taken to the curb and brought back two quality prospects in return.
There's some roster jams still left to be tangoed, but most of the cleaning house is done.
Are the Rays buyers or sellers?
Until the Rays have openings on the roster, they are sellers far more than they buyers. The 40-man roster is full, busting at the seems in fact, and there's two ways to look at it: need and contract status.
According to need, the Rays have five outfield slots for three on the roster and one designated hitter. Wil Myers, Kevin Kiermaier, Desmond Jennings, and the platoon of David DeJesus and Brandon Guyer are all possible to be slotted on the astro-turf (not to mention Mikie Mahtook could come banging on the door).
Joyce is the only man among them to have an expiring contract, and once the outfield market has settled, there will be buyers for a corner outfielder. Or maybe the Rays could pre-empt the market and deal him sooner to a team like the Reds at a decent price.
If you're looking at contracts that could be shuffled away, OF David DeJesus, SS Yunel Escobar, and 1B James Loney each have two or less years remaining on their contracts and could be moved, though Loney would be without an obvious replacement (unless Wil Myers puts on a first baseman's glove).
David DeJesus's name has been floated on trade rumors, but I'm not convinced he's due for selling. His clubhouse presence has had an impact on the team over his last two seasons, and the new management may want some continuity of vibe in 2015. It doesn't prohibit a trade, but it adds to his skill set. His compliment on the roster, Brandon Guyer, is more likely to stick around as well should DDJ stay.
Are you that confident Zobrist won't be traded?
If the Rays are interested in fielding a competitive team in the slightest, I believe they hold on to Zobrist.
Yes, everyone has their price, but the versatility of Zobrist two play seven positions on the field - including center, which he played in Japan with winter while on tour with the MLB All-Stars - combined with the astonishing low contract of $7.5 million for an athlete of his caliber, cannot be beaten.
Still, everyone is always for sale.
Do we expect the Rays to be buyers in any regard?
There's always a need for a veteran fifth starter on the Rays, as we see nearly every season. Erik Bedard filled that role in 2014, Roberto Hernandez in 2013. Next season there will be a lull between the start of season and Matt Moore's return from Tommy John surgery, so the need is there yet again.
Long-man Cesar Ramos and 6th starter Jeremy Hellickson need replaced on the 2015 roster, and one of those spots will already be filled by out-of-options Alex Colome. The other is more likely to be a veteran.
This time around, if at all possible, I would like to see the Rays target a bounce back arm over a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. This might create a need for an opening on the major league roster, but there has been marginal success with the previous two iterations of the veteran deal.
Of course, such a move may be cost prohibitive, but if the Rays find savings elsewhere, there's opportunity. In this scenario the Rays would target a non-tender candidate for a team looking to sign more starters from the free agent market, or promote their youth instead.
A possible fit could be with the Cubs and the rising fastball of Travis Wood. Acquiring him would but $3.9M on the Rays roster next season, but the arsenal of Wood could give Jim Hickey a lot to work with in bringing him back to his breakout performance in 2013.
The Rays will also be on the look out for a back up catcher, which may be a piece returning in the trade of an outfielder. Earlier in the off-season I profiled the Padres as a good match for finding catching depth behind Ryan Hanigan but in front of Curt Casali - specifically the stellar glove of Rene Rivera.
Other than that, there's always room for minor league bullpen signings.
Where do the Rays need to improve?
Here's where there will be opportunity for the Rays to get dramatic. The team was near the top in strikeouts last season, second only to Kevin Cash's Indians, but dead last in runs scored. Some of that could be aberration, but not all of it. The Rays are sellers, but how dramatically should they be?
Run prevention has always been the guide for the Rays, through pitching and defense, but last season the run creation department could not balance our expectations. That doesn't mean last year's team was a bad roster, simulations prior to the season gave Tampa Bay high odds of claiming the division, but reality only gets one try, not hundreds of iterations.
If the Rays can deal enough out of the outfield, it's possible the Rays would target a bat-first player to take up DH. Radio would love to Ryan Howard to get dealt to St. Petersburg, with the Phillies taking on all of the salary, but the odds of the Rays needing a DH is far below the odds they clear room for one.
Regardless, the Rays will be removing several pieces this winter, and are expected to stay active this week in the Winter Meetings. It will be interesting to see if any of those moves could add to the Rays' run creation side of the ball, and may be something specific to be on the look out for.