The Rays are built around pitching and defense, and for what it’s worth, those pieces are now mostly in place, or will be come May.
Jose De Leon will become the fifth starter once his rookie contract requirements are met, and Wilson Ramos should return from his knee injury at about the same time. In the outfield, the Rays added a Gold-Glove-caliber defender in Colby Rasmus, who should be ready by April and in the full swing of things by the start of the season.
There is some vagueness about the right side of the infield, where Brad Miller will hold down either first or second base, but where the other is up for grabs. And the team could use at least one more right-handed hitter for the outfield bench to help fight off the southpaws flooding the AL East.
Beyond that, there are also concerns that another piece may be needed for the bullpen and that the Rays may need to replace Logan Forsythe’s veteran presence in the clubhouse, but given the free agents remaining, these are needs it should be possible for the Rays to address.
Let’s start with the offense.
Right Handed Hitter: 1B/DH
Top Free Agents: Billy Butler (31), Chris Carter (30), Logan Morrison (29), Mike Napoli (35)
Chris Carter seems like the most attractive option on this list based on power potential alone. He had 41 long balls in 2016 and his defense can be sheltered from full-time exposure at first base by moving him to the DH spot when the lineup allows.
Mike Napoli has a history of plus defense, but it is just that, a history—past tense. The metrics were not kind to Napoli in 2016, and he may also be more interested in a full-time job guarantee. Opportunities with the Rays tend to transform into full-time rolls, but they have to be earned. Is Napoli’s defense what it once was? The Rays would want him to prove it.
Napoli does bring that veteran clubhouse presence, having played for multiple World Series teams. He has experience to burn, but those narrative reasons do not supplant the needs on the field. Morrison has likewise proven to be a great clubhouse guy, but didn’t contribute enough to the product on the field in 2016.
Billy Butler sounds like the opposite of a good clubhouse addition, and also has curiously performed below league average against southpaws in the last two seasons. It’s not clear where this reverse split has come from, though, as Butler did produce a 136 wRC+ vs. LHP’s back in 2014. Butler is also no help on defense, having logged barely over 100 innings in the field over the last two seasons.
The Rays have the advanced metrics to judge first base defense, so I defer to their systems, but nabbing the more willing participant between Napoli and Carter seems like a logical move to make.
Right Handed Hitter: OF
Top Free Agents: Jonny Gomes (36), Franklin Gutierrez (34), Ryan Raburn (36), Rickie Weeks (34)
Rickie Weeks hasn’t been in the spotlight this offseason, but offers an intriguing opportunity if the Rays can pick up the former starting second baseman on a minor league deal. Last year he played in Arizona, appearing in 108 games for only 205 PA as an outfielder, but showing that he hasn’t missed a beat against left handed pitching. He could be an intriguing utility defender for 2017.
Franklin Gutierrez has been floated by our site a couple times now, and he would be a logical fit. Once the best defender in baseball, Gutierrez still offers major-league defense in the corners and may also bring that veteran presence the Rays need. I would add to the discussion that Tampa Bay is a place known for great trainers who deal with injury well, and Gutierrez has a history of arthritic difficulties.
But that’s the trouble with most outfield options remaining: they are old. Ryan Raburn was not the same contributor in 2016, and Jonny Gomes didn’t even play stateside last season.
The Rays may be hoping to land both Gutierrez and Weeks, and I imagine they would prefer both to accept minor league deals, if possible.
Wild Card idea: Trade for OF Tommy Pham
Tommy Pham is the Cardinals’ fourth outfielder, a right-handed bat that barrels the ball well and is finally coming into his own at age 29. He has an option remaining, and is under team control through 2021 at presumable affordable rates. He’s capable of covering all three outfield positions with plus defense.
The Cardinals typically don’t mess with their depth, but they already have a righty-heavy outfield, and accordingly would be well suited to pursue a guy like Chris Coghlan on the free agent market. To make room, Pham becomes the fifth outfielder on a bench where he was already the 25th man.
Pham has power potential too. His hard hit rate is in the high 40% range, and he can bat to all fields. He can crush it:
Pham is just as injury prone as Gutierrez—he made it one plate appearance into 2016 before getting hurt—but is otherwise an incredible athlete and would offer the Rays some excellent flexibility with a strong bat.
Part of the problem in signing anyone at the moment is the full 40-man roster. Perhaps a trade from the Rays depth pieces clogging the system could make a swap beneficial for both sides.