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Rays' talks 'moving in right direction' at WM

@juanctoribio
December 16, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- The Rays have been quiet during the Winter Meetings, but general manager Erik Neander believes the club is progressing on trade and free-agent talks as the annual event is set to come to an end Thursday. "Continuing to have conversations. A lot of conversations, but still obviously

SAN DIEGO -- The Rays have been quiet during the Winter Meetings, but general manager Erik Neander believes the club is progressing on trade and free-agent talks as the annual event is set to come to an end Thursday.

"Continuing to have conversations. A lot of conversations, but still obviously nothing to announce or report," Neander said. "I do believe we're moving in the right direction, but nothing imminent. But we better be closer, because we have work to do, and we have ways that we want to improve our club."

As Tampa Bay continues its internal discussions, let's take a look at five takeaways from Neander's media session on Wednesday.

Outfield conversations progressing

After the Tommy Pham-Hunter Renfroe swap with the Padres on Thursday, Neander mentioned the Rays would be active in trying to improve their outfield group over the winter. Neander and the Rays used the first couple of days of the Winter Meetings to get a better feel of the market.

"We have a good idea of the kind of players that might be able to fit us," Neander said. "We're active and just getting clarity, but the list of players and those that we're pursuing, that list has been well established."

Some of the potential targets for Tampa Bay include Avisail Garcia, Steven Souza Jr., Yasiel Puig and Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama, who is receiving interest from various clubs around the league, including the Reds.

Neander wouldn't say that the club is making outfield help its top priority, but the conversations have intensified over the past few days.

"I don't know if it's been a greater focus," Neander said, "but there are more conversations just by the number of players that are potentially available."

Will the Rays be active during the Rule 5 Draft?

Tampa Bay has two open spots on the 40-man roster, which makes the club eligible to draft an unprotected player from another organization in Thursday's Rule 5 Draft.

Neander said the Rays haven't made a decision on whether they'll be active in the Draft, but it's unlikely that the club makes a pick because it would be required to keep the draftee on the active roster all season, which would affect some of the roster flexibility.

Tampa Bay, however, could lose a prospect or two, with outfielder Moises Gomez and right-hander Sam McWilliams two likely options. With active rosters expanding to 26 players in 2020, there could be some extra activity Thursday.

"If we have a full 40-man roster and we're still in danger of losing players, from a talent standpoint, it's not fun, and there's some anxiety that comes from it," Neander said. "But it's also a good place to be."

How have potential rule changes affected the offseason?

Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. said the potential rule changes in 2020, which include a three-batter minimum for each pitcher and a 15-day injured list for pitchers, are expected to be "fully functional" for next season.

Because of that, the Rays have spent time adjusting to the rule changes, which could potentially affect the way the team has managed its pitching staff throughout the years.

"Those are all things that we've spent time thinking about, how it affects the complexion of the roster and certainly with the three batter minimum," Neander said. "Obviously, that does change some of the strategy in play when you're inserting a big righty-lefty reliever into the game, but I think we're well prepared. To this point, we've operated with an expectation that those rules will be in effect next year, and we feel like we have a club that's well suited to handle it."

The Cole effect

Gerrit Cole allowed just one run in his two starts against the Rays in the 2019 American League Division Series. Now, with the right-hander reportedly signing a record nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees, Tampa Bay will have to figure out the former Astro, who will now be part of the AL East, arguably the toughest division in the Majors.

Cole struck out 25 in 15 2/3 postseason innings against the Rays, but even with his dominance, Neander said that the club isn't worried about what moves the other clubs in the division might or might not make.

"It's what you expect," Neander said. "The names change, but the budgets, the aggressiveness, the demands and the expectations that clubs like New York, Boston and those teams have, it's a constant. The rosters turn over and the names change, but the standards that they have and the lengths that they'll go to make their teams as competitive as possible, that's just part of competing in this division."

Expanded netting at Tropicana Field

During his media session on Wednesday, Commissioner Manfred announced that all 30 teams will expand the safety netting at their respective ballparks. Tropicana Field had already extended the netting enough to cover both dugouts, but now the netting will travel the length of the dugout and into the elbow in the outfield where the stands begin to angle away from the field of play.

"It's very difficult to extend netting all the way to the foul pole because you need to run cables over what would be inside the field of play," Manfred said. "The data does show that the risk of foul balls is less when you get out past these elbows."

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.