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Rays' active Meetings bode well for 2019

Tampa Bay signs free-agent righty Morton, adds infielder Diaz in three-way trade
MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- The Rays checked two of their most important offseason boxes by agreeing to terms with free-agent right-hander Charlie Morton and acquiring infielder Yandy Diaz from the Indians.

"I think looking at history, I didn't expect to come out of the Winter Meetings with as many things either completed or possible as we have," said senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom. "There's been many years we've come in here and had a lot of great conversations and come out of here with the exact same roster."

LAS VEGAS -- The Rays checked two of their most important offseason boxes by agreeing to terms with free-agent right-hander Charlie Morton and acquiring infielder Yandy Diaz from the Indians.

"I think looking at history, I didn't expect to come out of the Winter Meetings with as many things either completed or possible as we have," said senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom. "There's been many years we've come in here and had a lot of great conversations and come out of here with the exact same roster."

The Rays acquired Diaz in a three-team trade that also included the Mariners, and they surrendered highly regarded young first baseman Jake Bauers. In Diaz, though, they saw a player with just 299 Major League plate appearances who hits the ball consistently hard and has a chance to be an impact contributor in the middle of the lineup.

"We're excited about his ability," Bloom said. "He fits in to what we have been doing, in terms of taking a player who we think is really talented, has a lot of ability and giving him a chance to establish himself."

Video: Edwin to Mariners, Santana to Tribe in 3-team deal

The Rays will press on and for more upgrades.

"We're not thinking of this as the end to our offseason, but we feel we have a deep and functional club right now," Bloom said. "We're going to continue to look at other ways to improve. We like where our roster stands right now."

The Rays have reached out to free-agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz, and they had discussed an Encarnacion trade with the Indians. They've also discussed a possible trade for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto -- even after acquiring catcher Mike Zunino from the Mariners.

"I think some things are coming into focus," said senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager Erik Neander. "I would expect, over the next week, to have even a greater picture of where things are at before the holidays crank up."

Morton will line up behind America League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to give the Rays at least two traditional starting pitchers apart from the opener strategy that worked so well for them in 2018.

Right-hander Tyler Glasnow will also compete for a spot in the rotation, and with Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon expected back from Tommy John surgery around mid-season, the Rays will have an assortment of options.

Video: Rays add Morton to already strong pitching staff

This does not mean the Rays will use the opener strategy fewer times than they did in 2018. Only the Dodgers and Astros had lower staff ERAs after Tampa Bay began opening a game with a reliever on May 19.

Neander is also mindful of the rookies that contributed to a 90-win team in 2018, and he doesn't want to make an acquisition that blocks their growth -- the Rays were the first team to use at least 23 rookies and finish at least 18 games over .500. On the other hand, Tampa Bay has some rare payroll flexibility, and it is in the AL East with two teams -- the Red Sox and Yankees -- that won 100 games or more.

"I don't think we want to shut off anything," Neander said. "It's hard enough to find the matches. We'll be open-minded."

BIGGEST REMAINING NEEDS

1. Designated hitter
Despite all the progress in 2018, the Rays lost an MLB-high 14 times when their pitching staff allowed two runs or fewer. They were ninth in the American League in runs and next-to-last in home runs. Those numbers improved as the roster got younger. During the final two months, only four AL teams scored more runs than the Rays, but the search for offense is still a priority.

Video: After adding Charlie Morton, what's next for Rays?

2. Pitching
Upon hearing that manager Kevin Cash said his top three priorities were "pitching, pitching and more pitching," Neander joked, "I think Kevin made his preference clear in his session. I hope we can at least check off one of the three." Even after the expected signing of Morton, the Rays will continue to sort through their pitching options.

3. Bench
There are no pressing needs, but with a young roster and in a competitive division, the effort to get better will not end.

RULE 5 DRAFT

The Rays lost right-hander Sam McWilliams to the Royals in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. They also lost third baseman Peter Maris to the Giants in the Minor League phase. Because it has so many young players, Tampa Bay expected to lose a player or two as it set its 40-man roster.

"Those are hard decisions to make, and there's a lot that comes into play," Neander said. "In many ways, that's where you want to be, but it doesn't make it any easier when you're making some of those decisions and trying to pare things down. You're taking some educated guesses of sorts. You recognize the risk of leaving people exposed and what comes with that. I'm sure we'll look back and see things we should have done differently."

GM'S BOTTOM LINE

"We've got a really good young club, and there's some opportunities out there for us to improve it further. We need young players on the cusp of helping us at the Major League level to be the pieces that drive our team. We're set up well to have that group moving forward." -- Neander

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays