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Rays likely to continue pattern at Meetings

Tampa Bay looks to gather information at annual event
MLB.com @wwchastain

ST. PETERSBURG -- Anybody who has followed the Rays for the past decade understands how they conduct business at the Winter Meetings.

Normally, baseball's annual gathering brings a lot of "what ifs" and rumors about potential trades involving Tampa Bay players. Meanwhile, in the background, Rays executives explore their options, listening to agents about their free-agent players and other teams about possible deals.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Anybody who has followed the Rays for the past decade understands how they conduct business at the Winter Meetings.

Normally, baseball's annual gathering brings a lot of "what ifs" and rumors about potential trades involving Tampa Bay players. Meanwhile, in the background, Rays executives explore their options, listening to agents about their free-agent players and other teams about possible deals.

Hot Stove Tracker

"I think generally speaking, our past behavior is a pretty good indicator of our behavior as we move forward here," said Erik Neander, Rays general manager and senior vice president. "There are situations, like Wilson Ramos, which came together around last year's Winter Meetings. But for the most part, trade conversations tend to be more active earlier in the winter, but not always.

"We have trade partners in January, as well. But I think probably in a nutshell, trade conversations attempting to resolve as much of that as possible in the early going can be helpful before turning our focus to free agency. But you really have to be prepared for trades and free agency whenever they might come up. Sometimes it's in November. Sometimes it's in February, and anywhere in between."

While the Rays' history suggests a pattern, that doesn't necessarily mean that pattern can't be altered.

"I think perhaps as much this year as any year, really we've got a lot of plans that we've put together in terms of which path to go down," Neander said. "I think we'll be dictated by the market, the interest and how things shape up.

"The GM meetings, that was a time for us to collect information and get a better sense for where teams are. And I think leading up to the Winter Meetings ... will probably be a continuation of that process. Not sure it will be the catalyst for action."

While Tampa Bay isn't likely to make many moves at the Winter Meetings, there's a good chance fans will gain a better sense of what kind of club Rays management is trying to assemble prior to 2018.

Club needs

First base
Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda gave the Rays plenty of power at the position in 2017. Both are free agents, so unless the market is unkind, there's a good chance both will sign elsewhere. Jake Bauers -- the Rays' No. 5 prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com -- who spent the season at Triple-A Durham and packs plenty of power, is a good bet to win the job. But the club will likely want to find some insurance for the position.

Video: Top Prospects: Jake Bauers, OF/1B, Rays

Left field
At the end of the season, the Rays were using Corey Dickerson, Mallex Smith and Peter Bourjos in left field. Despite Dickerson's weight loss and improved speed in the outfield, he'll more than likely be the team's full-time designated hitter. Bourjos -- a free agent who could return -- Smith and newcomer Micah Johnson are not viewed as everyday players, so bringing in a left fielder is something Tampa Bay might consider.

Bullpen
The Rays cobbled together a formidable 'pen by the latter stages of 2017, but they're likely to lose the likes of Steve Cishek, Tommy Hunter and Sergio Romo to free agency. Tampa Bay traded Brad Boxberger to the D-backs, Xavier Cedeno was non-tendered and closer Alex Colome is mentioned in trade rumors. So there are holes to fill. The Rays will have Ryne Stanek and Jaime Schultz coming up from Durham, but they'll likely try to pick up a veteran free agent or two. Typically, these signings are Minor League deals with invitations to Spring Training.

Who they can trade if necessary

Rumors of where right-hander Chris Archer and third baseman Evan Longoria will be playing next season will again be rampant at the Winter Meetings and throughout the offseason. The Rays will definitely listen to any offers from possible suitors, but trading Archer or Longoria would have to yield a lot more than most teams are willing to give up.

Video: At a crossroads, Rays could hold keys to offseason

More on the practical side are the cases of Adeiny Hechavarria and Brad Miller.

Hechavarria, projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make around $5 million next season, plays shortstop for a team that is suddenly swelling with shortstops. He's a quality player at that position, and there should be interest in him. Given the Rays' depth at short, they could easily afford to trade him.

Meanwhile, Miller is projected to make somewhere around $4.4 million. Other teams likely value what Tampa Bay does about him, such as the versatility he brings, and he's a year removed from a 30-homer season.

Top prospects

Per MLBPipeline.com, the Rays' top 10 prospects are right-hander Brent Honeywell, shortstop Willy Adames, first baseman/left-handed pitcher Brendan McKay, outfielder Jesus Sanchez, outfielder/first baseman Bauers, right-hander Jose De Leon, shortstop Wander Franco, outfielder Joshua Lowe, outfielder Garrett Whitley and outfielder Justin Williams.

Honeywell, Bauers and Adames could all play major roles this summer.

Video: Top Prospects: Brent Honeywell, RHP, Rays

Rule 5 Draft

The Rays' 40-man roster is at 37 players, freeing them to make a Rule 5 Draft pick if they desire. That means the club could take a chance on a prospect and take a look at him during Spring Training. However, said prospect would have to make quite an impact, since Tampa Bay would have to keep him on its Major League roster for the length of the season in order to keep that player.

Big contracts they might unload

What is big? That's a question Rays management needs to decide. Heading into the offseason, the likes of right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make in the neighborhood of $6.5 million via arbitration, and Colome (projected to make $5.5 million) appear to be most likely trade candidates.

Payroll summary

Last season's Opening Day payroll came in at approximately $70 million and grew over the course of the season. Rays owner Stu Sternberg has said the payroll will need to be reduced prior to 2018, which means the team will have to trade one or two big names, or reach whatever payroll number it is going for by trimming reasonably costly veterans in favor of rookies who will make the minimum. For those wanting to keep score, if the Rays had stayed pat with what they had entering the offseason, their payroll would have been approximately $80 million.

Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2005.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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