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'Championship core' Rays' goal as WM near

Neander, Bloom discuss Tampa Bay's plans ahead of annual gathering
Special to MLB.com

ST. PETERSBURG -- Can the Rays retool their bullpen, add a reliable starter or two to the rotation and replace a big chunk of last season's offensive production in the middle of their order while reducing their payroll for the 2018 season?

That's the big question that the front office will have to figure out as the MLB Winter Meetings begin this weekend in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Can the Rays retool their bullpen, add a reliable starter or two to the rotation and replace a big chunk of last season's offensive production in the middle of their order while reducing their payroll for the 2018 season?

That's the big question that the front office will have to figure out as the MLB Winter Meetings begin this weekend in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Hot Stove Tracker

Rays general manager Erik Neander and vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom held court at Tropicana Field on Thursday to discuss the team's goals during the annual Meetings, which will take place Dec. 10-14. In Neander's first year at the helm, Tampa Bay finished the 2017 season in third place in the American League East with an 80-82 record.

"There's a reality that despite [being in postseason contention until late in the season], we only won 80 games," Neander said. "We need to be realistic about where we are, and that has led to a lot of conversations."

In an effort to shed payroll before Opening Day, Neander said that the team will entertain all reasonable offers this offseason and that "nothing was off the table," meaning that the Rays could also end up being big sellers this winter ahead of a major roster overhaul. He did not specify a set figure he would like to reach with the payroll other than to say it would be lower than last season.

Video: Chastain discusses Rays approach at Winter Meetings

Sizable guaranteed contracts for next season include third baseman Evan Longoria ($13.5 million), catcher Wilson Ramos ($8.5 million) and outfielder Kevin Kiermaier ($5.6 million). Infielders Adeiny Hechavarria, projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make approximately $5 million through arbitration in 2018, and Brad Miller ($4.4 million) could also be moved as part of a cost-cutting measure.

Neander cited the success that the Astros were able to find thanks in large part to their homegrown talent acquired from high Draft picks -- even if it meant some losing years ahead -- as one of "the blueprints" the Rays could follow. Whether that happens will be dictated by how the market unfolds for their players this offseason.

"We feel good about a lot of the young talent that we have here, and in a larger sense, we are trying to create that championship core," Bloom said. "You always have to react to the market and react to opportunities and how you go about doing that. I don't think that goal has changed; it's really just a question about how you get there."

Video: Chaim Bloom on the Rays' young players

Among the front office's goals will be trying to replace the production of Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda, who both became free agents after the 2017 season, in the middle of Tampa Bay's lineup. Morrison, who made just $2.5 million last season, batted .246 with a career-high 38 home runs and 85 RBIs in 2017. Duda could be in a similar situation after slugging 13 home runs and notching 27 RBIs in 52 games after coming over to the Rays from the Mets. Duda made $7.25 million last season.

Neander will also be on the hunt for a proven starter or two for the rotation. With Alex Cobb declining the team's qualifying offer in November to test free agency and Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi drawing interest on the trade market, the Rays will be shopping for cost-effective options who can eat innings in the middle of their rotation.

Video: At a crossroads, Rays could hold keys to offseason

"It's all about opportunity. It's all about finding the best value," Neander said.

The Rays will also need to address their bullpen with late-inning stalwarts Steve Cishek, Tommy Hunter and Sergio Romo now free agents and closer Alex Colome frequently mentioned in trade talks. The team also non-tendered lefty Xavier Cedeno, traded Brad Boxberger to the D-backs and lost Chase Whitley after he was claimed by the Braves off waivers, leaving lefty Dan Jennings as the only pitcher on the roster to make 25 or relief appearances for Tampa Bay last season.

Neander said he would like to see the younger players step into the vacant roles while sprinkling in some veterans who can help guide them in their development and give Rays manager Kevin Cash more flexibility.

"I don't think we want to block off the guys internally," Neander said. "When they merit an opportunity, we want to make sure the opportunity is there for them."

J. Scott Butherus is a contributor to MLB.com based in St. Petersburg.

Tampa Bay Rays