LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — One of the most pressing questions of the Tampa Bay Rays’ offseason could be answered soon: Who will play first base?
There seems to be positive momentum building in the Rays’ search to fill the need. Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations, said Wednesday at MLB’s Winter Meetings each day that has passed has “crystallized” Tampa Bay’s attempt to fill the position.
It appears a safe bet that resolution will come in the near future. When asked if he would be surprised if the first-base hole wasn’t resolved by December’s end, Friedman responded, “Yeah, I would be.”
“I think that’s one of the areas in the next few days something could happen,” Friedman said. “That said, it may drive on longer than that. I think we’ve advanced the ball in some areas to potentially be in position to do something sooner rather than later.”
On Wednesday, the market for first basemen included some interesting action. Free-agent Corey Hart, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers, agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal with the Seattle Mariners. Hart, who has played parts of nine major-league seasons, figured to be a potential Rays target if they lost James Loney in free agency.
The Mariners also traded for Logan Morrison, formerly of the Miami Marlins. Reliever Carter Capps was sent to Miami in the deal, creating intrigue with how the dominoes affect Loney.
Loney, given his production last season, figures to be the Rays’ preferred choice at first base. But he’s reportedly seeking a three-year deal ranging from $27 million to $30 million, which could place him out of the Rays’ price range.
Including that potential obstacle, Hart’s departure means the Rays will have increased competition for Loney’s services. Now, the Brewers are seeking a seasoned first baseman, and the sweepstakes should be a tight race between them and Tampa Bay. The Pittsburgh Pirates could also enter the mix.
The Rays’ best hope in the competition to sign him: Perhaps familiarity.
Loney, 29, hit .299 with 13 home runs and 75 RBI last season. His batting average was the highest since he hit .331 in 2007 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and his RBI were the most since he had 88 in 2010, also with the Dodgers.
He had a .348 on-base percentage, his best since a .339 in 2011 with the Dodgers. His slugging percentage (.430) and OPS (.778) also were the highest they have been in five years.
Loney, by all accounts, was a positive clubhouse presence in Tampa Bay. Yes, he was an introvert. But the Rays respected his quiet intensity for his craft, something manager Joe Maddon mentioned many times.
No doubt, they would be happy to welcome the American League Gold Glove Award finalist back for a second season with them. But it will likely take a lower asking price to make it happen.
“We became pretty good friends, I thought, last season,” Maddon said of Loney on Monday. “There was a lot of trust involved both ways. He played really well. … If there is some way that he falls back, that would be great. But I don’t know. He’s deserving of what he gets. I think last year he showed everybody how good of a baseball player he is. He’s a really good baseball player.”
If Loney goes elsewhere, perhaps Milwaukee, the Rays have given no indication whether they’ll pursue either a trade option or free agency more aggressively. The ambiguity is part of the Rays’ profile at this event, where rumor and innuendo fly throughout the halls as fast as the tweets that attempt to capture them.
The Rays, though, largely remove themselves from the static. Friedman, by design, reveals little.
Still, there are possibilities. Free agent Mark Reynolds, who spent last season with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees, is one name that would make sense. Tampa Bay seeks to build from defense first, then offense, and he fits the profile.
Reynolds, 30, offers some decent offensive skill. He’s a career .233 hitter with 202 home runs and 568 RBI. He hit .220 with 21 home runs and 67 RBI last season, a year in which he played for his second and third teams in three years.
Then there is the unknown factor: What will the Mariners do with first baseman Justin Smoak?
Will they keep him? Or will they offer him in a potential blockbuster package for ace left-hander David Price? (Price’s agent, Bo McKinnis, told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal on Wednesday his client will not consider signing an extension with Seattle if dealt there.)
At this point, the Mariners’ brash moves — whether they’re wise is another debate — have driven offseason buzz. Does Seattle’s action surprise Friedman?
“I’m so focused on what we have to do that it’s hard for me to look outside of the scope of what we need to accomplish,” he said when asked by FOX Sports Florida. “It’s not something I pay especially close attention to.”
Still, there could be a cause-and-effect to be revealed later with the Rays’ first-base situation. Anything, at this point, seems possible.
After the latest action, though, expect a resolution to come within days or weeks, not months.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations with agents and teams,” Friedman said. “I feel like we’ve had a number of mature conversations going right now that different things could happen over the next few days.
“I feel like last night and today were productive.”