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Topkin says early free agent market priced out Rays

High cost of pitching, however, may give the team leverage on the trade market

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Rays enter this off season with needs behind the plate and in the bullpen; neither one has been addressed thus far.

Free Agent Catchers

Backstop Jason Castro was linked to Tampa Bay for a few weeks before signing a three-year, $24.5 million deal with the Minnesota Twins. Despite his .214/.292/.369 slash line the last three seasons. Tampa Bay relished his pitching-framing ability and favorable platoon splits versus right-handers (.231/.331/.426, 10 HRs, 25 RBIs vs. RHPs in 2016).

Then, left-handed reliever Brett Cecil set a high bar for bulllpen arms by securing a four-year pact worth over $30 million from the St. Louis Cardinals. The former starter turned lefty specialist enjoyed a decent year out of the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen, posting a 3.93 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 36.2 innings.

As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times writes, the inflated market took the Rays out of their comfort zone, making marginal upgrades like Castro and Cecil expensive risks for the budget-conscious Rays.

General manager Erik Neander explained that the Rays are working diligently to improve the team and do so in an economical manner.

"Early offseason signings are typically the result of a very competitive market for those players," Neander said. "Sometimes it's difficult to contend with that, but not always. Our job is to be prepared, try to do our evaluations correctly, wait for the right opportunity to arise and be in position to strike when it does."

Of the remaining free agent catchers on the market, the only standouts are Matt Wieters, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Wilson Ramos, and A.J. Pierzynski.

Wieters and Ramos figure to land multi-year deals well out of the Rays’ price range. Saltalamacchia did launch 12 HRs and drive in 38 runs for the Tigers last season but slashed just .171/.284/.346 in 92 games. Pierzynski, just a year removed from hitting .300 for the Braves, is entering his age 40 season.

Lefty Relievers

As for left-handed relievers, Jerry Blevins, Michael Dunn, J.P. Howell, and Boone Logan top out the current crop of free agents. But all of those lefties enjoyed a 2016 either comparable or superior to Cecil – so his four-year, $30.5 million pact becomes a rough template for the rest of the market.

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Rays Most Likely to Improve Through Trades

At this point, the Rays’ best bet is to wait out the market, let the negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement play out, and deal from their surplus of starting pitching. Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Cobb have seen their names swirl through trade rumors

A report from Joel Sherman two weeks ago suggested that Tampa Bay will trade at least one of their starters. The team can capitalize on a thin class of free agent starters — which is headlined by Rich Hill — by trading one of their under 30-year-old studs.

Archer, has been particularly critical of the Rays’ lack of spending, telling MLB Network Radio that the Rays have “got to spend more money.” He added that with the addition of a few more pieces, combined with the pitching, the Rays “can get back to the winning franchise that we were.''

But Archer -- or any of Tampa’s starters - could best help the Rays next season by fetching a healthy return package and pitching elsewhere next season.