Now that the Rays have been booted from the playoffs, we will continue our occasional series examining at what contending teams should aim to do with their rosters in the offseason by having a look at Tampa Bay’s roster situation:
OF Carl Crawford
1B Carlos Pena
CL Rafael Soriano
RP Grant Balfour
RP Joaquin Benoit
RP Chad Qualls
RP Randy Choate
SS Jason Bartlett
SP Matt Garza
OF B.J. Upton
C Dioner Navarro
RP J.P. Howell
OF Gabe Kapler
DH Dan Johnson
SP Andy Sonnanstine
Top Prospects Ready to Contribute Now/Soon
SP Jeremy Hellickson
SS Reid Brignac
OF Desmond Jennings
The Rays have a huge number of key players hitting free agency or arbitration this offseason, compared to most other possible 2011 contenders, so on the surface it looks like a pretty dire situation. Moreover, the Rays are on record as saying they are going to cut payroll significantly next year (and who can blame them, with attendance so low).
But the Rays also have an abundance of talent at all minor league levels, and they have some room to maneuver, so with some canny moves (read: trades), all is not lost as far as contending next season goes.
First of all, I am going to presume the worst-case scenario, payroll-wise, and assume that the Rays are going to trim as much as $20 million and go all the way down to about $50-55 million from this year’s $72 million. Can the Rays do this and still contend in the hyper-competitive AL East? My answer is yes.
One reason I am so confident is that the Rays only have $17 million worth of commitments on the books for next season, leaving them with about $35 million to work with, even assuming drastic payroll cuts. The key is to maximize the value they get with those 35 million clams.
First, the Rays should let almost all of their free agents walk, and cash in with the compensation draft picks. Carlos Pena is a valuable piece, but has proven himself to be little more than a one-dimensional slugger, and is eminently replaceable. I would love to see the Rays re-sign Carl Crawford, who is legitimately great, but he is heading into his 30s and is sure to get paid more than he’s worth with the free agent market for outfielders so thin this year. And while closer Rafael Soriano was great this year, he is due for a big raise toward the top end of the payscale for closers, which is pretty much always overpaying.
The Rays should also look to trade away several of their arbitration-eligible players. Jason Bartlett is an amazing defender and provides a modicum of offense, but he is about to get expensive and the Rays have a virtually identical (and much cheaper) player on hand in the form of Reid Brignac. B.J. Upton has the Upton brand-name and has long been touted for is top-shelf tools, but has numerous holes in his game and should be dealt while some of his name-value still remains. Another trade candidate should be catcher Dioner Navarro, who was once a top prospect and had a monster year as recently as 2008, but whose star has faded and who no longer has a job because of the emergence of John Jaso.
Many are speculating that the Rays might also look to deal starter Matt Garza, and indeed the Rays have shown a willingness to pull the trigger on mainstays in the past with the trade of Edwin Jackson, but Garza has proven much more consistent a pitcher than Jackson ever was and has been a rock in the rotation for the past three seasons. Even with a sizeable raise, he’s likely to provide good value in 2011, and thus should be kept.
The Rays should also look to hang onto Dan Johnson and Andy Sonnanstine, who will still be cheap, as well as JP Howell, who is coming off an injury but will be needed in the pen with so many other relievers departing. Gabe Kapler’s comeback was a great story in 2009, but he fell back down to Earth hard in 2010 and should be cut or traded.
Assuming the Rays do everything I said so far, they will have new holes at several outfield positions, first base, the front end of the bullpen, and possibly at second base depending on if they use Ben Zobrist to plug an outfield hole. Meanwhile, the rotation will be stacked and the left side of the infield and catcher will be secure.
How to plug these holes? Well first of all, the Rays can fill two outfield holes with a combination of Desmond Jennings/Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist. In the bullpen they should look to bring back Howell and possibly Lance Cormier, should exercise Dan Wheeler’s option, and should put a priority on resigning Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit if possible. They should then bring on Jeremy Hellickson as a relief ace and swingman starter as he prepares to become a full-time starter by 2012.
This leaves holes in the outfield, second base, and first base. With three somewhat valuable trade chips on the block, the Rays should look to fill at least one or even two of these holes via trade. Then, even assuming the drastic payroll reduction scenario, and after accounting for arbitration raises and re-signings, the Rays would still have $15-$20 million to spend on filling the remaining holes. Not too bad.
Carl Crawford – Fire (reluctantly)
Carlos Pena – Fire
Rafael Soriano – Fire
Grant Balfour – Rehire (if possible)
Joaquin Benoit – Rehire (if possible)
Jason Bartlett – Fire (trade)
Matt Garza – Rehire
B.J. Upton – Fire (trade)
Dioner Navarro – Fire (trade)
J.P. Howell – Rehire
Gabe Kapler – Fire
Dan Johnson – Rehire
Andy Sonnanstine – Rehire
Starters at CF, 2B/OF, 1B, and perhaps DH – Hire (preferably trade for or failing that, sign)