Rays aiming high with title expectations, big-name acquisitions

March 15th, 2022

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Wrapping up the Rays’ first team meeting of the year Monday morning at Charlotte Sports Park, manager Kevin Cash offered four words that served as both a challenge and a reminder to the group.

“We’re built to win,” Cash told the team.

Tampa Bay won a franchise-record 100 games last season, claimed the American League East title for a second straight year and made a third consecutive trip to the postseason. Most of the core players from that team are back in Spring Training now, and the Rays are still pursuing significant upgrades to their roster.

As Cash and president of baseball operations Erik Neander held their annual Spring Training press conference Tuesday afternoon on the boardwalk at Charlotte Sports Park, it was clear the success of the last few years has raised the Rays’ bar. They are aiming high, a sentiment that applies to their preseason expectations and their attempted acquisitions.

“We got a taste of the World Series in 2020. It had been some time. Last year, we had a wildly successful regular season, a disappointing postseason,” Neander said. “We are trying to find a way to take that last step that this organization hasn't found a way to get done yet.”

Since the lockout lifted, it’s become clear how serious those efforts are. Among the players the Rays have been linked to this week: first baseman Freddie Freeman, outfielder Seiya Suzuki, A’s third baseman Matt Chapman and A’s right-hander Frankie Montas. Those are two of the top remaining free agents and two of the top trade candidates, and it’s safe to assume the Rays are engaged on some level with nearly every legitimate difference-maker available.

Yes, Tampa Bay really is pursuing a significant upgrade to its roster as Spring Training gets underway, according to sources, looking to improve through both free agency and trades. Does that mean the Rays are going to land any of those players, though? Not necessarily, no.

For instance, Freeman would strengthen arguably the Rays’ weakest position but still has big-market suitors, including the Dodgers and the Yankees. The Cubs, the Padres and others have already been connected to Suzuki. Oakland is sure to demand a huge haul of young talent for Chapman and Montas, like the one Atlanta just gave up for Matt Olson, and that could be prohibitive for a Rays front office that always operates with one eye on the future.

Before the lockout, the Rays extended young star shortstop Wander Franco, signed veteran Corey Kluber to stabilize the rotation and added lefty Brooks Raley to shore up the bullpen. Those were their three targeted, high-priority moves. Thus, it’s entirely possible they will break camp with more or less the same roster they have now -- and that team would probably be just fine, despite its competition in the rugged AL East.

“We know we're in a very, very good division. We saw it last year,” Cash said. “I don't think much is going to change from that, other than you can make the argument that every team in that division got a little bit better, so it should be a fun summer.”

But the Rays feel an obligation to aim high for two reasons due to the roster they’ve assembled. For one, they know they have a good group, but it's one that can still get better if it means getting closer to achieving their ultimate goal. Also, their team is already deep and talented enough that it would require a relatively meaningful upgrade -- a true impact player -- to justify taking away someone else’s roster spot or playing time.

“There are certainly players that seem to be available in trade that need to be resolved, and I think it's a pretty high bar to upgrade the group we have based on -- for better, for worse -- our assessments here,” Neander said. “We're going to use the time to see if there's anything out there that makes sense. But we feel like this is a really complete group as is, and I think last year plus some of the additions that we made [before the lockout] should point to that.

“It's recognizing where we're trying to go and ultimately find a way to win that World Series. It takes great players to do that. And there are some that are out there, and their situations are unresolved -- free agency, trade, what have you. That's our job. And we're doing a lot at once, but that's certainly part of it.”

As Neander has previously stated, the Rays believe their best shot at winning a World Series is getting to the postseason as often as possible. So any move they make, whether it’s a presumably high-salary signing like Freeman or a high-acquisition-cost trade like Chapman, must fit within that framework. Tampa Bay has not gone “all-in” by mortgaging the future, in much the same way the club hasn’t gone “all-out” by totally tearing down its roster.

The fact that the Rays are discussing big-name, high-end players does not mean they’re changing their approach. They’ve gone after them in the past with the same strategy in mind, and they landed one last summer in DH Nelson Cruz. The young talent on the Rays’ roster, combined with the depth of their Minor League system, backs up Cash’s assertion that Tampa Bay is built to win both now and in the future.

“It's a huge part of why not only do we feel good about our team right now, but [we] believe that … there’s a real staying power to this,” Neander said. “If we continue to raise the bar with our group and we have a shot in as many years as possible, eventually we feel like we're going to knock that door down.”