NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Everybody attending the Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel is convinced that the Rays will trade one of their coveted starting pitchers.
But they did not do so on Tuesday, instead sending Minor League infielder Derek Dietrich to Miami in exchange for 30-year-old shortstop Yunel Escobar.
"Yunel is a quality Major League shortstop," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "He's a good defender. Has occasional pop. We feel like he really helps solidify our infield defense, which should be a real strength next year."
The Marlins and Rays had been in discussions for two days, with the A's also in the mix. Escobar is under contract to make $5 million in 2013, and his deal includes club options for '14 and '15 at $5 million per season.
Dietrich ranks 14th on MLB.com's list of Tampa Bay's Top 20 Prospects.
Escobar's acquisition, along with the soon-to-be-officially-announced signing of first baseman James Loney, will improve the Rays' infield defense while also allowing the team to take advantage of Ben Zobrist's talents. Zobrist finished the 2012 season as Tampa Bay's regular shortstop. Now he will likely be used primarily at second base and right field, with occasional stints at short.
"One of the benefits here is that Yunel will obviously be our primary shortstop," Friedman said. "This will allow us to deploy [Zobrist] in more effective ways and utilize his versatility."
Escobar has a reputation for being immature, punctuated by an incident in September in which he sported a gay slur on his eye black. Friedman concedes that Escobar's past was a point of concern when considering making the deal.
"We did a lot of homework on Yunel, and we believe that he's going to fit in really well in our clubhouse," Friedman said. "It sounds like he's extremely happy about being here, about being a Ray, and he knows that he's going to be welcomed into our clubhouse. But yeah, I think it's safe to say we did a lot of work on it and talked to a lot of people and feel comfortable that it's a calculated risk on a good player that we feel like can help us and fit in really well in our environment."
And the eye black incident?
"I think he definitely learned a lesson from [that]," Friedman said. "I think it had a real impact on him, and he feels remorse about it. And ... we believe it was an isolated incident and that nothing of that nature will be of a concern going forward, or we wouldn't have acquired him."
The Rays also had to think long and hard about trading Dietrich, a highly regarded prospect, particularly given the current state of the farm system, which is not that strong as far as position players are concerned.
"It's never easy for us to trade prospects," Friedman said. "They're more valuable to us than they are to any team in baseball. But we're always trying to balance the short-term and the long-term.
"Trading Derek caused a lot of angst in that he has a chance to be a really good offensive second baseman who hits left-handed. [We] just felt like with where our team was, the fit, everything else, that at the end of the day, it made sense for us. And obviously, the years of control with Yunel was a factor. We wouldn't have given up someone of Derek's quality for a year of someone who fit us really well."
Whereas the Escobar rumor came to fruition, Tuesday's other major rumor concerning Tampa Bay is still out there. The Rays are said to be among the suitors for slugger Mark Reynolds, who became a free agent when the Orioles non-tendered him last week. Other teams interested in Reynolds include the Cubs, Yankees, Indians, Marlins and Mariners, and the O's haven't ruled out a return.
"We've got a lot of balls in the air. It's tough to handicap the chances, but there's a real chance that we leave here with more clarity than we had coming in," said Friedman, who noted that the club has "had conversations on every front -- with free agents, numerous different scenarios, trades where we talked about pitching and some where we did not."
Tampa Bay entered the offseason with the prospect of having 10 free agents: B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, J.P. Howell, Jeff Keppinger, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, James Shields, Jose Molina, Fernando Rodney and Luke Scott.
Upton has signed with the Braves. Shields, Molina and Rodney had their options renewed, leaving Pena, Howell, Keppinger, Farnsworth, Scott and Ben Francisco -- who became a free agent when the Rays did not tender the arbitration-eligible outfielder a contract before last Friday's deadline.
"There's a number of them that we've expressed interest in," Friedman said. "They've earned the right to get to this point, and they're going to continue to assess the market, and we're going to continue to maintain dialogue."
Pena is not likely to be back, nor is Scott, unless it's at a discount.
Howell presents one of the more interesting decisions for Tampa Bay. The 29-year-old left-hander appeared fully recovered this past season after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder in 2012. Pitching in 55 games, he went 1-0 with a 3.16 ERA. In addition, from June 14 to Aug. 30, Howell compiled a club-record scoreless streak of 27 1/3 innings, breaking Shields' record of 23, set in 2011.
The Rays have always liked Howell's makeup, as well as the fact that he can pitch in "high-leveraged moments" -- as manager Joe Maddon likes to call late-inning situations -- and the fact that he can retire right-handers as well as left-handers.
"I know the Rays have shown interest," Howell said in a telephone interview. "My agent told me that Andrew's been in touch."
Howell served as the Rays' closer for much of the 2009 season, but he has not pitched much in the late innings over the past two years. He understands why, as Rodney has dominated the ninth inning and Peralta normally fills the setup role in solid fashion, but Howell has expressed a desire to once again be in that situation.
"Last year we had such a great bullpen, and Peralta was 'Everyday Eddie,' but you want to be in there when the game is on the line," Howell said.
Howell would like to return to Tampa Bay with a multiyear deal, but he added that such a contract won't be a deal-breaker if he gets an offer that "makes sense."
Meanwhile, the Rays continue to have an interest in Keppinger, but recent events affecting the Yankees and Alex Rodriguez will probably prevent Tampa Bay from bringing back the veteran infielder.
Rodriguez needs to have surgery on his left hip, putting his 2013 season in jeopardy and the Yanks in need of a third baseman. Keppinger is rumored to be the guy who will fill that void. He is said to want a three-year deal worth $12 million, which puts him out of the Rays' price range.
If Keppinger's price is somehow lowered and he is re-signed by Tampa Bay, he would likely be used in the same role as last year, when he hit .325 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs in 115 games. Keppinger would also give the Rays a nice option at first base against tough left-handers, which would allow the left-handed-hitting Loney to take a night off.
Friedman allowed that despite non-tendering Francisco, there is "still interest in him," and Friedman also did not rule out a return by Farnsworth.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com.