ST. PETERSBURG -- Two questions stare the Rays in the face heading into next week's Winter Meetings in Nashville:
What does the team plan to do to improve its offense?
Will the Rays use pitching as trade bait to acquire a bat or two in an attempt to fix their offense?
Those who follow the Rays closely understand that the club's offense was dealt a major blow at the end of April when third baseman Evan Longoria went down with a partially torn left hamstring that cost him 85 games. In addition, the Rays sustained a series of other injuries that kept pieces of their offense out of the lineup for prolonged periods.
Earlier in the offseason, executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman talked about his club's offensive issues in 2012.
"It was just a strange season," Friedman said. "If you break it up into different pieces, from the All-Star break on, we played at a 96-win pace. Before the All-Star break, we had a lot of injuries."
No matter what the Rays do in the offseason, Friedman said that patching a hole left by Longoria is a tall order.
"I don't think we're going to do anything this offseason that's going to put us in a position to withstand losing Evan for 85 games," Friedman said. "I don't think that's something we'll be able to accomplish."
Friedman added that the Rays need to proceed cautiously in regard to fixing the problem.
"People focused on the offense, and rightfully so, and it's something we're going to spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing and analyzing, because you don't want to make a knee-jerk reaction and do something when there's noise," Friedman said. "It's about stripping out the noise and what's potentially a systematic issue. But again, I would take us scoring 400 runs next year if I knew we were going to allow 100. And so the interplay between them is everything.
"We get that we'd love to have an elite pitching staff and an elite offense. It's difficult to do. So it's just figuring out that relationship between the two and trying to maximize the runs we can score -- the runs we allow, conversely. There's a lot of work we need to do on this and focus on."
On Monday, the Rays extended Longoria's contract for an additional $100 million, potentially keeping him with the team through the 2023 season. They have also renewed the options for closer Fernando Rodney and catcher Jose Molina and signed incumbent setup man Joel Peralta to a two-year deal. Unless a starting pitcher is dealt, the Rays will again have one of the top staffs in baseball, and there aren't many holes to fill in the field, as Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce and Molina will all be back.
B.J. Upton and Jeff Keppinger were major components of the Rays offense in 2012, and it's likely both will move on via free agency to play for other teams -- particularly after Tampa Bay's substantial commitment to Longoria. But the Rays could address the possible departures of Upton and Keppinger in a variety of ways.
First, will the Rays be looking for another center fielder to replace Upton, or will they use in-house candidates? Jennings could slide over from left field, Zobrist could move from shortstop or Sam Fuld could become a full-time player. Of course, each of those moves would create another void, but the point is the Rays have great positional flexibility within their roster.
Meanwhile, Keppinger gave the Rays a dependable bat as a utility infielder. Will they try to replace him or simply rely more on the likes of Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac or perhaps Ryan Roberts, should they decide to tender a contract to the arbitration candidate?
Tampa Bay will also need to find a first baseman and designated hitter to replace Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. But again, the way the Rays shuffle their roster, one or both slots could be filled by in-house candidates.
Trading a starting pitcher to acquire more offense is obviously an option, but Friedman has made it clear on numerous occasions that such a maneuver depletes the depth of the organization's most coveted asset. And he stressed that "going to market" to acquire starting pitching is a position in which the Rays never want to find themselves.
Because the Rays compete against the biggest of big-market teams in the American League East, their payroll won't be anywhere close to their division rivals, as long as baseball retains its current financial system. Thus, the Rays will be annually cast as the little team that could. The Rays' 2012 Opening Day payroll came in at $63,627,200, which was a dramatic increase over the 2011 Opening Day payroll of $42,171,308. So it's anybody's guess where the team's 2013 Opening Day payroll will stand, even though the salaries of Pena ($7.25 million in 2012), Scott ($5 million), and Upton ($7 million) are likely to be off the books. One thing will be certain at these coming Winter Meetings: The Rays won't be in the hunt for the top free agents on the market.
"We obviously have challenges as a market when we compare ourselves to the teams we're competing against," Friedman said. "We don't use it as an excuse. It motivates us. It's a challenge. It's something that excites every one of us and makes the success that we have that much more rewarding.
"So there are certain things we can do in the free-agent market and certain things we can't. So, on one hand, we can't compete for every single player that's going to be a free agent. But we should be experts on the ones that we can compete on. And with that, there's a lot more inherent risk with those types of players and there's more volatility. But it's incumbent upon us to find the right group and the right composition to have success."
Based on Winter Meetings past, the Rays do not feel any pressure to complete deals before the Meetings end. Typically, they have done most of their shopping after the Meetings have concluded. Regardless of when the Rays do finish assembling next season's team, their track record indicates they will put a competitive product on the field.
"Our goal this offseason is to put together the best 25-man roster we can with requisite depth behind that," Friedman said. "How that shakes out, I don't know yet, but I feel like we're in a really good position with a very strong nucleus returning, and so we have to figure out how to put the pieces together to construct the best possible team together."