The Tampa Bay Rays won the AL East this year thanks to a combination of efficient pitching and smothering defense. Those skills also took them all the way to the World Series — in their first year as an over-.500 team.
But where they fell short in the Fall Classic was in offense. They just couldn’t out-hit the slugging Phillies. But before you cry “sample size!” (and I know the words are right on the tip of your tongue), take a look at their regular season run differential. The Rays finished the year having scored 103 more runs than they allowed, good third in their division after the Red Sox (+151) and the Blue Jays (+104).
To add some offense this winter, however, the Rays need not look too far afield. After all, AL ROY Evan Longoria missed more than a month with a fractured wrist — and he was far from Tampa’s only injured player this season. For all the press that the injuries of their ALCS rivals, the Boston Red Sox, received, the Rays were hurting plenty, too. To improve their offense next year, they may only need the talented players they already have on their major league roster to stay healthy. Of course, no team can rely on all its players staying healthy — even a young team.
Specifically, they need a righthanded bat; yet AL pennant or no, the Rays are still a small-market club without much money to spend. (They’re going to have to give raises to several of their youngsters as it is.) Who could they grab? Just a wild dream on my part, probably, but…how about free-agent switch-hitter Milton Bradley? They could use a DH (Cliff Floyd has a labrum issue and could retire or have surgery) and Bradley might thrive on a winning team where the operative word is “team.” Plus, he OBP’ed .436 last year. And his past issues may lower his price.
The Rays could also use another rightfielder — though they’d prefer someone more defensively skilled, a lot of the guys available are left-field types. They may need to move Carl Crawford to right and stick the new guy in left. If they do decide to go that route, and they choose to splurge, free agent Pat Burrell could be an intriguing option. Another possibility might be Brian Giles, via trade (the Padres picked up his option a few days ago). The Pads were willing to trade Giles at the deadline to shed salary, but ended up blocking a trade to Boston. It’s not clear whether he’d be happier in Florida. If they do want to try and get both defense and offense for the corner spot, the Cardinals are listening on Ryan Ludwick, though he’s likely to be very expensive and “very expensive” is not Tampa’s style. There have been some rumors about the Rays young pitching, particularly Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson, being on the block — one of them could be moved to try and pick up some more offense. David Price, who gave us a sneak peek during the World Series, is projected to move into the rotation next year.
If the Rays can’t get an offensively productive rightfielder, there are some other players that might make sense. Since Rocco Baldelli and Eric Hinske are free agents as well, the Rays might need a backup outfielder as well as another starter. One option I like for them is Gabe Kapler — he’d be cheap and he’s a good clubhouse presence. With a year’s experience as a minor league manager in the Red Sox organization, he’s certainly capable of mentoring their young players and rising prospects.
The Rays, like pretty much everyone, could also stand to pick up a few bullpen pieces — a lefty, if they can’t re-sign Trever Miller, and a closer, to replace 39-year old Troy Percival.
But these are tweaks, not gaping holes. The Rays are a good young team, and a team that is still a few years away from hitting its prime.