5 questions Rays will face this offseason

October 13th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- Not long after their flight home from Boston landed Tuesday afternoon, Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander sat beside manager Kevin Cash inside the interview room on the field level at Tropicana Field to discuss the end of Tampa Bay’s season.

The sting of losing to the Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Division Series the previous night was still fresh. At one point while discussing Tampa Bay’s upcoming offseason plans, Neander nodded across the room at the ALDS backdrop that had been in use in the same room only a few days earlier. But with that series and their postseason run abruptly ended, Neander and Cash were seated in front of a background featuring the Rays’ logo, pondering what went wrong after the most successful regular season in franchise history -- and what comes next.

“We've got a lot to discuss and catch up on over the next couple weeks. So much of our attention up until 12 hours ago, until last night, has been on this season and trying to extend it to continue to be in front of that banner over there,” Neander said, looking at the ALDS backdrop, “instead of this one here.”

Before they can focus on getting back to the playoffs, Rays officials must turn their attention to the business of the offseason. The Rays figure to be busy and creative, as they always are, as they shuffle their roster and seek upgrades to prepare themselves for a deeper run through October.

Here are five questions the Rays must answer during a winter that came earlier than expected.

1. How will they manage their 40-man roster?
Soon enough, the Rays will need to make room for nine pitchers who finished the season on the 60-day injured list and one, lefty reliever Adam Conley, who finished on the COVID-19 list. They’ll send seven players into free agency. They’ll have to manage a massive arbitration-eligible class of 19 players, some of whom are bound to be traded or cut loose. They have prospects to protect from the annual Rule 5 Draft. They have another wave of young players they’ll want to add to the roster at some point next year. Surely, they’ll add to the roster from outside the organization, too.

In other words, it’s a lot for Neander and his baseball operations department to sort through. Neander called it “a priority over the next few weeks,” and the Rays’ roster management will be worth following throughout the offseason.

“Wish we didn't have these few weeks to think about it,” he said. “But we do, and we'll make the most of it.”

2. Will they pick up Mike Zunino’s club option?
This will likely be the club’s first bit of offseason business, and the answer seems like an obvious yes.

The 30-year-old catcher maxed out his option-year salary at $7 million by playing in 109 games this season. It’s not a bargain by the Rays’ standards, but expect them to retain Zunino after an All-Star campaign in which he launched 33 homers while providing invaluable leadership and skill defensively.

Zunino and Francisco Mejía made for a nice pairing behind the plate, and the Rays ranked second in OPS among catchers (.812) behind only the Giants during the regular season.

“What [Zunino] was able to do this year offensively, it's one of the reasons we won 100 games,” Neander said. “That was a special year for him. I think it speaks to just the type of competitor he is, the drive that he has to get better.”

3. Will they pursue any of their free agents?
It’s a class of seven, several of whom barely contributed due to injuries: Nelson Cruz, Collin McHugh, Michael Wacha, David Robertson, Chaz Roe, Chris Archer and Tommy Hunter.

Perhaps the Rays will consider a reunion with Cruz, who didn’t perform up to expectations offensively after being acquired from the Twins in July but did fill a key leadership-by-example role in the clubhouse. The question is what kind of market will develop for the veteran DH, who will turn 42 next season, and whether the Rays can compete in that market.

McHugh was a huge part of the best bullpen, by ERA, in the AL this season -- although that may have raised his price beyond the Rays’ typical limits. Wacha provided some of the rotation leadership the Rays sought after letting go of Charlie Morton last winter, they’ve already brought back Roe once, and Robertson pitched in some big situations down the stretch. It’s harder to predict what will come next for Archer, given his recent injury history.

4. What to do with injured ace Tyler Glasnow?
This might be the most interesting call the Rays make all offseason. Glasnow is expected to miss all of next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August. The tricky part is that Glasnow is arbitration-eligible for two more years, which means he’ll get a modest raise from his $4 million salary this offseason and earn that same pay when he’s healthy and ready to return in 2023, his final season before reaching free agency.

Will the Rays be willing to pay him two years’ worth of salary -- and carry him on the roster -- for two winters, for just one season in which his workload might be limited coming back from major surgery? He’s good enough when healthy that they have to consider it.

The Rays also could release him to free themselves entirely of the financial/roster-spot commitment, but that’s highly unlikely. They could trade him soon, assuming another team with more resources might be willing to invest early in his 2023 return, or wait to trade him. They could keep him on the roster through the end of his club control, betting on the idea that he’ll provide enough value when he returns to make the investment worth it. They could try to extend him, although that would require Glasnow to delay his first shot at free agency.

5. Do they have enough starting pitching?
There’s a lot to like about a rotation featuring Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, top prospect Shane Baz, hard-throwing Luis Patiño and some combination of Ryan Yarbrough, Josh Fleming, a healthy Yonny Chirinos, a returning Brendan McKay, a more proven Brent Honeywell Jr. or any number of other options down on the farm. The question is whether their young arms are all ready to take another step forward next season, or if they’re better off seeking another veteran arm to provide some stability.

The Rays bet on talent over experience with their ALDS rotation. Their hope is that those talented pitchers gained valuable experience, even in a losing effort, and that they’ll benefit next season as a result.

“When you choose talent without experience, there is more unknown that comes with that. And you accept those risks. But the benefit is, there's only one way to get the experience,” Neander said. “And here, we do need to rely on young players often to contribute, and they got it and they'll be better for it, without question.”