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Offense on top of Rays' 2013 wish list

ST. PETERSBURG -- Once again, the Rays reached their yearly goal of playing significant baseball games in Septemer.

Sadly, playing in those significant games did not yield the desired results, largely because of the team's offense.

Looking forward to 2013, the Rays will need to address several issues on offense while hoping to get the same kind of payoff from their starting pitching and bullpen. Based on the core group of pitching, it's reasonable to expect the club to once again acquire the kind of pitching Rays fans are used to seeing.

As for the offense, any improvement will feel monumental based on the overall ineptitude of the 2012 lineup that shot blanks for most of the season.

Some tough decisions will have to be made during the offseason in regard to how to address the Rays' 10 potential free agents, four of whom the team holds options on for the 2013 season.

The 10 include: B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, J.P. Howell, Jeff Keppinger, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, James Shields, Jose Molina, Fernando Rodney and Luke Scott.

Of that group, Shields, Molina, Scott and Rodney each have club options.

The no-brainer decisions involve exercising the options for Shields ($10.25 million for 2013) and Rodney ($2.5 million). After that, it's anybody's guess.

For example, will the club bring back Molina to catch? If it exercises its option, Molina would make $1.8 million next season; the buyout is for $300,000.

Upton will be another interesting case. The Rays' center fielder said he would like to remain with the organization that drafted him with the second pick of the 2002 Draft, but it's not likely the club will be able to afford him, particularly if other teams are offering ridiculous money. Such a scenario is easy to imagine, because he offers the kind of skills that can make him appear to be the best player in the game on any given day, from the way he hits to the ground he covers in center field. And he's proven himself to be a clutch performer in September.

No matter what outcome the free-agent market delivers, Rays fans should again have a solid team that will find itself playing meaningful games in September.

Free agents: RHP James Shields ($9 million club option), RHP Fernando Rodney ($2.5 million club option), DH Luke Scott ($6 million club option), C Jose Molina ($1.8 million club option), CF B.J. Upton, 1B Carlos Pena, LHP J.P. Howell, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, RHP Joel Peralta and INF Jeff Keppinger.

Arbitration-eligible: LHP David Price, RHP Jeff Niemann, RHP Burke Badenhop, OF Matt Joyce, INF Sean Rodriguez, INF Reid Brignac, OF Sam Fuld, INF Ryan Roberts and OF Ben Francisco.

Starting pitching: While it's reasonable to expect the Rays to exercise Shields' option, the possibility exists that he might be the player needed to acquire a much-needed bat. However, Shields is not alone in that regard. The Rays have an excess of starting pitching that includes Shields, Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer. In addition, Wade Davis, who pitched out of the bullpen in 2012, is still considered a starter by the organization. Any one from that group could be traded based on the team's dire need for offense.

Relief pitching: There's a good chance the bullpen could have a different look next season. Howell, Peralta and Farnsworth are all free agents and any or all of the group could go elsewhere. The good news is that Rodney will be back to anchor the group and overpowering lefty Jack McGee will be back as well, while Davis may or may not be a reliever in 2013. Other possibilities include Cesar Ramos and Brandon Gomes, though Ramos could also find himself in consideration to be a starter.

Catching: Molina proved to be a disappointment in 2013. He didn't hit well, and his celebrated defense showed some leaks. If he isn't brought back, the Rays will need to find a complement to Jose Lobaton, who showed signs of improvement in '12. Internal candidates include Chris Gimenez and Stephen Vogt. Given the overall lack of catching in the Major Leagues, it's doubtful the Rays can land a catcher of any magnitude on the free-agent market.

First base: Pena's encore with the Rays brought disappointing offensive numbers. The veteran slugger won't likely be back, which means the Rays will need to find a first baseman. Based on the in-house candidates, it's likely the Rays will have to go the free-agent route to fill the position.

Second base: Ryan Roberts locked down the position during the final months of the 2012 season, but that does not mean he won't have competition in '13. Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez should compete for the spot and Tim Beckham, the top pick of the 2008 Draft, could be a dark horse for the job.

Shortstop: Ben Zobrist took over the position during the second half of the season. Joe Maddon likes to say of Zobrist that "he has no chrome" and "he's boring" -- traits the Rays' manager likes. While Zobrist is not flashy, he makes the routine plays, and having an offensive shortstop like Zobrist, it leaves open a less demanding defensive position to add offense. Hak-Ju Lee, the Rays' top shortstop prospect, is probably a year away from making the jump to the Major Leagues. But given his talent, anything is possible.

Third base: Evan Longoria is the man at third base. However, based on his tendency to get injured, the Rays will likely need to have a backup plan in the event Longoria goes on the disabled list for a prolonged period as he has the past two seasons. If Longoria has a healthy season, he is a solid MVP candidate.

Outfield: There's a good chance Upton will not be back in 2013. If that is the case, Desmond Jennings would likely move to center field, Sam Fuld would shift to left and Matt Joyce would go in right. Ben Francisco also could be in the picture. Of course, there's always the chance Zobrist could return to right if the Rays go another route at short.

Designated hitter: Scott could be brought back for $6 million or the club could exercise its $1 million buyout for the disappointing slugger. Scott did not produce as the Rays had hoped, struggling to stay healthy and dealing with the aftereffects of his 2011 shoulder surgery. While the chances are good that Scott won't be back, the team might just take a chance on him based on the other offensive repairs needed.

Tampa Bay Rays