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Where do the Rays go from here?

Speculation on how the Rays can add as November comes to an end.

Rays GM Erik Neander

As November ends, the Tampa Bay Rays have aggressively filled their biggest need in acquiring Mike Zunino to be their right handed catcher.

The roster could be complete with the team looking to land upgrades to a team that won 90 games last year with almost the whole team returning, but then the Rays chose to open up a big hole by designating CJ Cron for assignment.

Cron was projected to get $5.2MM in his second trip through arbitration after having his best season of his career. Cron put up .253/.323/.493 line and a 122 wRC+ over 560 plate appearances. He played mostly everyday until the end of the season and gave everything the Rays could have reasonably hoped for in 2018.

Now the Rays head into 2019 willingly opening up another hole on the roster: that of a right handed power bat. $5.2MM wasn’t too much for what Cron is likely to provide in 2019 and the Minnesota Twins look to see if they can find better fortune with a batter that hit 30 homers for the Rays in the previous season.

Even with Cron on board the Rays could’ve had a competitive roster for just under $37MM which even for the Rays would be very low. In 2011, they had an opening day payroll of $42MM as they lost free agents after the 2010 season.

In previous years the Rays have made many moves that the goal was to move a player and stay about the same while shuffling money around and collecting a few prospects along the way. This while all staying in the narrow $70-75MM payroll range the Rays have started the last five seasons.

Even in a reduced role, Cron would get similar money to what Steve Pearce’s deal paid him in 2016 with the Rays. He could have stayed, but the Rays willingly opened up the hole without having the replacement locked up.

For a team that usually is very conservative in the way they put together their roster this is different.

This year the Rays they have the financial freedom to do almost anything as long as it’s short term. Currently the opening day roster would come in just shy of $32MM. If they spent what they have in recent years that would leave somewhere in the ballpark of $40MM to add.

I don’t expect they will spend the money just to spend, but if the opportunity is there for an upgrade, now is the time to act.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Seattle Mariners
Nelson Cruz
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Free Agency

One of the reasonable targets in free agency is off the board after Josh Donaldson signed with the Atlanta Braves on a 1/$23MM deal. We will never know what or if the Rays made an offer, but if it wasn’t in the $20-25MM range for one year then it wasn’t real interest. Donaldson was the longest of long shots because 15+ teams should’ve been interested in this deal, and Donaldson having his pick went to his hometown team.

This leaves Nelson Cruz as the only power right handed bat remaining on the free agent market. His age will limit the years to be offered, and being a designated hitter will limit his market in general. It seems the obvious competition would come from the Houston Astros or Chicago White Sox, with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics, and Cleveland Indians having designated hitters locked up.

The Astros are in win-now mode. Their roster is getting quite costly and they now need to replace three starters after Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel reached free agency and Lance McCullers Jr. will miss the 2019 season after having Tommy John surgery after the season ended.

The Chicago White Sox have been rumored to be a potential suitor, but with his age it makes much more sense for a team more concerned with 2019 than one that is looking further into the future.

If the Rays do fail to land Cruz he’ll likely be playing for the Astros.

Andrew McCutchen is the other right handed bat that has been connected to the Rays. McCutchen shouldn’t be playing center field, but he’s a quality corner outfielder. He’s not the MVP level bat that he was 3-5 years ago, but he’s still very productive.

Mike Petriello made an argument that the Rays would be a great fit for McCutchen at Austin Meadows hasn’t established himself and it would be quite funny if he once again found himself blocked by McCutchen.

I’d take the field on McCutchen because of years and there being many more realistic landing spots compared to a guy like Cruz.

MLB: AL Wild Card-New York Yankees Workout
Andrew McCutchen had a new look in 2018. TODAY NETWORK

The Trade Market

The Rays could turn to the trade market to acquire the big bat. In July, the Rays were able to lessen the strain on their 40 man roster after they traded for Tommy Pham, but next winter the Rays will have many tough decisions to make. The curse of a deep farm system is that you can’t keep everybody or even give everybody the chances they seemingly deserve.

At this time there looks to be eight players that will likely need to be added in C Ronaldo Hernandez, 2B Vidal Brujan, LHP Resly Linares, SS Lucius Fox, 1B Nathaniel Lowe, 2B Nick Solak, OF Moises Gomez, and LHP Colin Poche.

A year is a long time for prospects and there could very easily be more or less that will actually need protecting. Poche and Lowe could see time with the major league club in 2019, but they will still need 40 man roster spots.

There may be some natural attrition as well, but ultimately there are too many position players for the 40 man. The Rays will need to pick and choose who they will give opportunities and determine whose value is best used in a trade.

On the trade market Paul Goldschmidt is the big fish. Goldschmidt would be an upgrade for almost every single team in MLB. The Rays would have to win a bidding for the final year of Goldschmidt’s deal for $14.5MM.

Edwin Encarnacion could be an interesting alternative to Cruz. The Indians are looking to move money around in order to stay within budget. Most of the talk has been about Cleveland potentially moving one of their starting pitchers, but this could be another alternative. Encarnacion is owed $20MM in 2019 and has a $25MM team option for 2020 including a $5MM buyout. Encarnacion is younger than Cruz by two years and likely will cost a bit more in dollars, but is a reasonable alternative, particularly if the Indians send cash in a trade.

Elsewhere, Carlos Santana was till good at getting on base with a .352 OBP in what was a down 2018 season. He also has a track record of doing well as a designated hitter, putting up a 130 wRC+ in 405 plate appearances in 2017. The Philadelphia Phillies are looking to move Santana after the Rhys Hoskins experiment in left field didn’t go over well. Santana is owed $34.5MM over the next two seasons with a $17.5MM team option for 2021 with a $500k buyout.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Texas Rangers
Paul Goldschmidt
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays need to add

Even after they decided to move on from Cron the Rays have an in house backup plan with Ji-Man Choi, who hit very well for the Rays in his cameo last season, but he’s not a proven entity. This can’t be the solution at the end of the winter, whether Choi is on the roster or not.

There are still three months left until Spring Training comes, and the Winter Meetings are just a week away. Overall, the Rays are in a great spot. Their roster is already good and it’s cheap.

Even with budgets like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers have you can’t afford a very good roster at free agent prices. This is doubly true for small market teams that work with much more limited budgets. No matter the budget, teams need these young players to allow them to pay for some veterans to get them over the top.

Now is the time to add that luxury piece or two, even if the monetary cost is uncomfortable in the short term. The Rays have the young players in place and won’t be this cheap for long.

The front office opened up a hole where one didn’t exist.

Now they must fill it.