Offseason holds tough decisions for Rays

BY foxsports • October 19, 2012

It’s only been two weeks since the Tampa Bay Rays scattered to the wind, heading to their respective homes to adjust to an offseason that arrived far earlier than they would have liked. ... Or since Rays vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon sat side-by-side in the team’s auxiliary clubhouse delivering their post-mortem, instead of delving into the postseason.

The disappointment of falling short, in spite of a noble dash to the finish line, was still fresh. It wasn’t the time for answers to questions about what Rays free agents might be back or how Friedman might intend to fill holes on the 2013 roster.

It could be months before he goes about the business of molding the club for next season, though speculation will undoubtedly begin to swirl as the annual Baseball Winter Meetings near. Those are scheduled for Dec. 3-6 in Nashville, Tenn.

But one can bet the gears in Friedman’s mind have been turning, wondering about what players he may want to re-sign, and which ones he might be able to land through free agency or through a trade he’ll feel he can afford to make.

This will mark the first year since Friedman arrived in 2005 that he’ll go it alone without the counsel of senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker. The former Astros GM and veteran baseball personnel guru announced Thursday that he was leaving the Rays after seven years to take a similar position with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Yet, one thing won’t change. Friedman will once again be operating within Tampa Bay’s tight payroll constraints, a reality that will likely keep many of the enticing free agents in this year’s market beyond reach.

There are a few things that appear certain.

The Rays are going to have to move on without the services of longtime center fielder B.J. Upton. He will likely command in the range of $50 million-to-$60 million over the next five years from some team coveting his combination of power, speed and defense. Upton's strong finish in 2012 helped his bargaining price, too — He hit 19 of his career-high 28 homers after Aug. 1.

Unless a team makes him an offer he just can’t refuse, Friedman is very likely going to stick with the wealth of starting pitching that put the Rays in position to challenge for a wild-card berth in spite of their troublesome hitting.

Without a doubt, he could land some players who might help shore up some weak spots if he were to package workhorse James Shields in a deal. But don’t count on it, based on a message Friedman made clear two weeks ago to the assembled Tampa Bay-area media.

“We believe very, very strongly in pitching and defense,” Friedman said. “We ended up needing all of our pitching this year, and anticipate that's how it's going to be each and every year.

"If we ever have to go to market for pitching, we are doomed as an organization. That season you can absolutely write off. We cannot compete with other teams for it. We can get creative and compete in other areas for players — in the bullpen and different offensive players and how we put them together. Starting pitching is an area that I don't want to even challenge our guys to be creative enough to find ways to get better. We have it. It's something we've nurtured.”

Tampa Bay hasn't t nurtured offense in the same way. Since there’s no power in the minor league pipeline, Friedman’s challenge as always will be to find it by other means. That’s all part of the puzzle for the Rays, who have their share of free agents ready to hit the market, and others who might if the club doesn’t exercise their option.

It’s never too early to start musing about the possibilities, even if the first pitch hasn’t even been thrown in the World Series. So in that spirit, here's a look at the Rays, their free-agent picture and what some of their needs are heading into next year.

For starters, the 2013 class of Tampa Bay free agents includes: first baseman Carlos Pena, Upton, relievers Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and J.P. Howell, infielder/DH Jeff Keppinger and second baseman Ryan Roberts. The Rays also hold 2013 options on DH Luke Scott and catcher Jose Molina, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be back.

It would seem Keppinger earned a chance at a return with the Rays, hitting .325 (125-for-325), wreaking havoc against left-handers by hitting .376 and leading the club in batting. Along with playing DH, he showed his versatility by playing second, third and first. He should be able to get more than the $1.525 million he made last year, so his return isn’t a certainty.

If the Rays are going to shell out big bucks for him, they would need him to be an everyday player. The only question would be whether Keppinger could pound righties over the long haul the way he did lefties. He hit .302 against right-handers last season and his .269 career average against righties is solid by Rays’ standards.

Given that the team may well be in the market for a first baseman, one scenario worth pondering would be to move Keppinger there. Of course, that’s traditionally a power spot in the lineup, and his nine homers in 2012 were a career high.

Defensively, he’d be a step back from the likes of Pena and 2011 first baseman Casey Kotchman. The Rays didn’t re-sign Kotchman, who hit .303, but lacked power.

Speaking of first base, it certainly doesn’t look as if Pena will be returning after his colossally disappointing season (.197 average, 19 homers and 182 strikeouts) unless he agrees to a massive pay cut as a bench player and defensive backup.

Scott’s situation is a little more hazy. It would be easy to see the Rays parting ways with the player who, in spite of big expectations, spent two stints on the DL and batted .229 with only 14 homers in 314 at-bats.

It’s possible that Friedman might want to see how Scott would fare over the course of a full season now that he is completely healed from the shoulder surgery that prevented him from playing outfield as he did with Baltimore.

But considering it would cost the club $6 million to see if he’d pan out under better circumstances, Scott’s return seems iffy. Even while healthy, he did not perform consistently well — and set a club record with an 0-for-41 streak in the middle of the season.

Farnsworth (1-6, 4.00) did nothing to make a case for getting a new deal, never approaching his successful season of 2011 after returning from his elbow injury. The bullpen will be just fine without him.

The bigger question is whether the Rays will choose to pay Peralta and Howell, both of whom would like to return. Peralta earned $2.175 million last year and can get more after a second strong season as a set-up man (3.63 ERA, 84 Ks in 67 innings). Howell finally regained his form after missing the 2010 season and half of 2011 due to shoulder surgery, and he set the team scoreless innings record (27 1/3 innings.). Howell earned $1.35 million last year and, like Peralta, could attract interest from a number of teams.

Catcher remains an question mark heading into next year. Chris Gimenez hit .260 in 109 plate appearances with an array of clutch at-bats down the stretch. Plus, he hit .357 against lefties. That should be enough to earn him a part-time role in 2013.

Then the decision is whether to find another catcher on the open market or exercise the option on Molina, who hit .223 in limited duty (251 at-bats). Molina would give the Rays a veteran presence to work with the pitching staff.

He earned $1.5 million in 2012 and its likely other teams won't be clamoring for his services. Neither Jose Lobaton (.222, two homers, 20 RBI in 69 games) nor Robinson Chirinos, who sat out the season with an injury, appear to the answer as front-line players.

Meanwhile, it appears that a long-standing question has been solved at shortstop. Ben Zobrist excelled at the position after being moved there in August. He and star third baseman Evan Longoria give the Rays great defense on the left side of the infield and offensive pop in the batting order.

Second base is a bit of an unknown. Does Friedman re-sign scrappy Ryan “Tat-man” Roberts? He has a good glove and some power, but he hit a disappointing .214 after joining the Rays mid-way through the season in a deal with Arizona — and he didn’t come cheap at $2.0125 million. Do the Rays keep Keppinger, play him at second and go in search of a free-agent first baseman with power?

It’s hard to envision Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac all making the roster as backups — Brignac would seem to be the odd man out as he was before his September call-up.  

With Upton leaving, the most likely scenario would have Desmond Jennings moving from left to center, with Matt Joyce playing either left or right and Sam Fuld capable of playing all three positions extremely well as a “fourth” outfielder while seeing occasional starts. The Rays could try to re-sign late-season acquisition Ben Francisco, who had his moments as a starter in right and left. He hit only .228 in 57 at-bats but is a .257 career hitter in six seasons.

Or Friedman could go shopping in the bargain aisle for another starting outfielder with some power. Maybe he would roll the dice on Scott and play him in the outfield, assuming his shoulder would finally be 100 percent.

The good news is that the Rays have an option on Fernando Rodney, who on Friday won Comeback Player of the Year and Delivery Man of the Year in the AL. No surprise there. Rodney set the all-time ERA record for a season at 0.60 (for more than 50 innings) and established a Rays saves record with 48.

Expect that the Rays will be strong on starting and relief arms across the board.  There's no doubt potential AL Cy Young winner David Price (20-6) isn’t going anywhere.

Once again, the million-dollar question is whether Friedman can somehow find the additional bats this offseason — on a limited budget — to support those arms.

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