• Bren: He is a awesome player and a good man.. sweet.. polite.. friendly.. down to ...

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:

Free Agents
OF Carl Crawford
1B Carlos Pena
CL Rafael Soriano
RP Grant Balfour
RP Joaquin Benoit
RP Chad Qualls
RP Randy Choate

Arbitration Eligible
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.

Summary

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)

4 Responses to “Hirings and Firings: Tampa Bay Rays”

  1. Couple comments:

    * It’s Sonnanstine, not Sonnenstine.

    * Sean Rodriguez (in the event of a Bartlett trade) would likely wind up at 2B or (with no Bartlett trade) as the Rays’ next Super-Sub. Matt Joyce will remain in the mix for RF (there’s nothing else for him to show in AAA).

    * Navarro walked out on the team after learning he would not be on the active postseason roster (and having been asked to stay and keep in shape in case he was needed as an injury placement). His trade value is essentially zero at this point. He won’t have lost his job because of Jaso (though Jaso certainly made a nice case for himself), he’ll have lost it because of his attitude and his .528 OPS.

    * I expect Kelly Shoppach to be around in 2011 if only because the Rays hold an option on him already and he’s still stronger defensively than Jaso. The next potentially legitimate catcher in the pipeline (Nevin Ashley) is very unlikely to contribute by then. Don’t really know what to make of Jose Lobaton.

    * Kapler has been on the DL with a mysterious “ankle injury” since mid-August. His playing career is probably over, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him (and Rocco Baldelli, for that matter) retained as a member of the coaching staff in some capacity (roving minor league instructors).

    * Howell is certain to be back. He won’t get much of a raise (if any) through arbitration, as he missed the entire season with a shoulder issue that required surgery.

    * I suspect the Rays will push harder to re-sign Benoit than Soriano. Soriano was absolutely awesome, but the label of “Closer” nearly automatically pushes his price tag up another couple million. Benoit was every bit as good in the primary setup role, and I bet he’d love the chance to close regularly, too. Giving Benoit the year to close gives time for Jake McGee to theoretically take over in 2012.

    * Don’t count out Fernando Perez to get healthy again and compete for a job on the big league bench. He’s also quite the fan favorite.

    * Carlos Pena is one-dimensional only in batting (a 3-outcome guy: HR, BB or K). He’s also a phenomenal defensive 1B, too, and that is criminally underrated. He’ll probably only be brought back if he’s willing to take a pay cut.

    * Should the Rays not retain Pena at a discount, the 1B job may be Leslie Anderson’s to lose. Anderson fared quite well for himself in moving up from A+ through AA to AAA this season after signing as a Free Agent following his defection from Cuba. You may remember him from the Cuban team in the WBC in 2006 & 2009. If he doesn’t work out at 1B, he can (conveniently) also play LF. Also for consideration is fellow Cuban defector Jose Ruiz (I do not know as much about him).

    • Nick Kapur says:

      Thanks for the great comments sliver! A few responses…

      I think Sean Rodriguez is better off remaining a super sub – I’m not convinced he can really hold his own with the bat on an everyday basis – so I think the Rays should look for an everyday starting 2B if they don’t try to go with Zobrist there.

      I also have questions about Leslie Anderson. If Pena is gone, I don’t really think Anderson can hit with enough power to be an everyday 1B at the major league level, at least on a contender like the Rays. He’s a good option to have around though. Maybe the Rays can troll around for some underappreciated minor league free agents or something at 1B, with Anderson also in the mix, and let the best man win, but I’d be worried if they just annointed Anderson the starter from the get-go.

      • I can see why Anderson’s power potential may be a concern in the context of a “traditional” 1B bat. However, the Rays’ front office doesn’t always seem to be concerned with how much any one position is “supposed” to produce offensively.

        They seem to worry about putting the best nine men on the field first, and then fitting them defensively where they can. Of course, this only really works because they also place a high value on defensive flexibility, too. Having Zobrist, Brignac and Rodriguez all able to play average to above-average defense at multiple positions really saved them a number of times.

        I think if Anderson comes out of Spring Training 2011 looking like a good overall player (in a position-agnostic sort of way), he’ll make the team. At that point, they’ll figure out where on the field he works best, and 1B just may be the easiest place to fit him in.

  2. Boy you guys are sure firing off these “Hirings and Firings” blog post….we going to see anymore?

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