As we have seen in previous seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays are finally ready to spend. Not only did they guarantee baseball’s best prospect a $182 million deal, but the Rays have been finalists for some of baseball’s top free agents in recent seasons in Marcell Ozuna, Justin Turner, Freddie Freeman (for whom they were the highest but losing bidder), and even a closer like Craig Kimbrel.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Rays have checked in on some of the top free agents available ahead of the winter meetings, it’s more a matter of seriousness.
After some smoke online from SNY.com, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal confirmed yesterday that the Rays were in on 1B Jose Abreu (who signed for three years, $60 million with the Astros this week), and reported the Rays are legitimately in on SP Jacob deGrom with several qualifiers:
It’s also not exactly a surprise that club officials are pessimistic about their chances, knowing deGrom’s average annual value is expected to exceed $40 million in a deal of at least three years.
Such an amount would represent about half the Rays’ club-record $83.9 million payroll in 2022, and they’re already at an estimated $67.7 million for 2023. Still, they will occasionally splurge, in their own way. They will pay Tyler Glasnow $25 million in 2024, the second year of his two-year extension. They also offered Freddie Freeman two deals last offseason in free agency, according to ESPN — six years, $140 million or seven years, $150 million.
Their appeal to deGrom could include the opportunity to pitch in his native Florida, a state that does not charge income tax, as well as the chance to work under one of the game’s top pitching coaches, Kyle Snyder.
The finances of deGrom’s deal will be interesting to follow. Rosenthal goes on to note that other teams would be willing to shell out “considerably more” for the 34-year old pitcher than the Rays, and it’s easy to understand why. His 42.7 K% and 3.3 BB% are best in The Show, and he averages near 100 mph on his fastball. But thanks to tax law, even though Freddie Freeman ultimately signed for six-years, $162 million the Rays were still the “highest” bidder net of taxes, of which Florida has few and California has plenty.
The Rays might also stand a chance due to some injury risk: deGrom made only 11 starts in 2022, and 15 starts the year before. In April of this year it was due to his shoulder (a stress fracture in deGrom’s scapula), but the previous season had elbow, shoulder, and forearm injuries. All pitchers are ticking time bombs for injury, but these are worrying signs.
deGrom made all 12 of his scheduled starts after returning from the injured list in August of this season, including one in the postseason, and looked like his usual self upon return from a stuff perspective.
The Rays interest might be more than standard due diligence, and you never know if the Rays staying consistently in on top free agents like deGrom might allow another down the road to pan out (Trea Turner, anyone?), but until then — in the words of my friend Ian Malinowski — the MLBPA should at least give the Rays a trophy for price enforcement.