ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays made a run at reaching the postseason for the fourth time in five years in 2012, but in the end, they came up a little bit short, leaving the front office looking for ways to find a few more wins in 2013.
When the Winter Meetings open up on Monday in Nashville, Tenn., Tampa Bay will continue its search for roster upgrades -- without feeling a time constraint to get something done before the Meetings conclude.
"We have the mindset going in to never put pressure on ourselves to do anything," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "If something lines up for us, we're going to be aggressive to act, but we haven't typically done a whole lot at the Winter Meetings. But we have had a lot of productive conversations that have manifested themselves into deals after the Meetings."
The Rays' top priority at the moment is finding another bat or two to generate additional offense.
"I would have no issues saying that we're trying to figure out what we're going to do at DH and first base, potentially [seeking] an outfielder," Friedman said. "There are different ways we can go because of versatility. We can look at different things."
Tampa Bay made a splash on Monday by signing star third baseman Evan Longoria to a contract extension that could keep him with the team through the 2023 season. In addition, the Rays exercised options on right-handers Fernando Rodney and James Shields. Now, they must decide whether to use one of their coveted starting pitchers as trade bait or to sign a free agent or two for offensive help. That might come in the form of a center fielder, first baseman or designated hitter to erase the loss of free agents Carlos Pena, Luke Scott and B.J. Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Braves on Thursday.
"The Winter Meetings is a really good venue to facilitate and further conversations that you're having with agents and teams as well when you have all 30 teams under one roof as well as the various agents," Friedman said. "It helps to spark conversations along."
First base: The second act of Pena's tenure with the Rays was disappointing, greatly reducing the team's offensive firepower and leaving it looking for a replacement for the free-agent first baseman. With few in-house candidates, Tampa Bay is likely to either trade for a first baseman or sign a free agent to fill the void. Re-signing free agent Jeff Keppinger, who recently broke his right leg, could be a possibility for the Rays.
Center field: Upton will no longer patrol center field at Tropicana Field, leaving Tampa Bay to look for someone new to play the position in 2013. In-house candidates include Sam Fuld, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce and even Ben Zobrist. But each of those possibilities has drawbacks. If Fuld becomes an everyday player, the Rays would lose a clutch left-handed bat for the late innings. In addition, he gives the team a quality late-innings defensive replacement and pinch-runner. Jennings is already a Gold Glove-caliber left fielder, so why move him to center? The same scenario pretty much exists for Joyce, the team's right fielder. If Zobrist moved to center, Tampa Bay would have to find a shortstop. One trade possibility floating around the rumor mill has the Rays sending one of their starting pitchers to the Rockies for Dexter Fowler, who is arbitration-eligible after playing for $2.35 million in 2012.
DH: Tampa Bay has not had much luck signing free-agent DHs. Pat Burrell didn't perform to expectations, and Scott did not have a chance to play much in 2012, spending much time on the disabled list. If the Rays decided to sign a free-agent DH, that move will likely be made closer to the beginning of Spring Training, once DHs start to see potential jobs disappearing from the market. Tampa Bay's other option would be to rotate the spot in the order, which the club has had some success doing in the past.
Who they can or need to trade
Starting pitchers: It's possible that the Rays have the best, and deepest, stable of starting pitchers in the Major Leagues with David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Wade Davis, who is still considered a starting pitcher despite his quality work as a reliever in 2012. Any one of the group could be had for the right price, but Tampa Bay's demands for its starters has always been said to be steep. However, if the right young offensive talent -- with a friendly contract -- became available, the Rays might be tempted. Then again, Friedman has always been quick to point out that the club can't put itself in a position where it has to "go to market" to get quality starting pitching. Any trade would cut into the club's security blanket.
When asked to assess the possibility of trading a starting pitcher, Friedman smiled and said: "I really don't know how to answer that.
"We're obviously having conversations [with other teams], and that is probably playing a role in which road we go down. It does play a role in which road we go down; figuring that out, we certainly don't have to trade one. But if we do, it's going to be because we feel like it makes our organization better, and we have so many different pitchers with different experience, different years of service, different backgrounds -- in terms of who would appeal to which teams -- that figuring out if we're going to do something on that front will help a lot in narrowing the scope of our offseason.
"I don't know how to assess the chances of [trading a starter]. But obviously, we'd be remiss if we didn't have conversations along those lines, to see what puts us in the best position to have as much near-term and long-term success as possible."
MLB.com ranked Tampa Bay's top 10 prospects as follows: Shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, right-hander Taylor Guerrieri, Archer, outfielder Mikie Mahtook, lefty Enny Romero, outfielder Drew Vettleson, lefties Blake Snell and Alex Torres, righty Alex Colome and lefty Felipe Rivero. Tim Beckham, Derek Dietrich and Richie Shaffer are also highly regarded prospects.
Of that group, Archer is the closest to reaching the Major Leagues. If the Rays decided to commit to Zobrist as their shortstop of the future, they might be tempted to trade Lee or Beckham. Dietrich, who has a potent bat, is more likely to be a second baseman in the future.
Rule 5 Draft
Tampa Bay's 40-man roster is at 39, so the team can select a player in Thursday morning's Rule 5 Draft.
Big contracts they might unload
Shields will make $10.25 million next season, and the Rays hold a $12 million club option on him for '14. However, while Shields is well paid, his value on the open market would far surpass what he is being paid based on his performance. So don't look for Tampa Bay to try to unload this contract unless it gets something of quality in return.
LHP Price (earned $4.35 million in 2012), RHP Niemann ($2.5 million), RHP Burke Badenhop ($1.075 million), OF Joyce ($499,500), INF Sean Rodriguez ($492,800), INF Reid Brignac ($490,600), OF Fuld ($489,400), INF Ryan Roberts ($2,012,500), OF Ben Francisco ($1,537,500).
Roberts and Francisco.
The Rays always give the impression that their payroll is fluid and that exceptions can be made in moving the number higher or lower, depending on the value they are getting in return. Thus it's fair to speculate that this year's payroll will remain in the $50 million to $60 million range.