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Rays pursuing Japanese stars at Meetings

@juanctoribio
December 9, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- The Rays expect to be active -- looking to add to the outfield -- as the Winter Meetings got underway Monday, and two Japanese players could be in the mix. “You look at our 40-man roster and the number of pure outfielders on it, and there aren’t

SAN DIEGO -- The Rays expect to be active -- looking to add to the outfield -- as the Winter Meetings got underway Monday, and two Japanese players could be in the mix.

“You look at our 40-man roster and the number of pure outfielders on it, and there aren’t that many,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said Monday. “I think, certainly, where we stand today, that’s a unit or a position group that we would almost certainly need to increase our numbers and ideally we do that in a way that also increases the quality of that group.”

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With Avisaíl García becoming a free agent and Guillermo Heredia being non-tendered, the Rays have just three outfielders on the 40-man roster, with Austin Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier and newly-acquired Hunter Renfroe currently projected to start.

The Rays have had internal discussions about exploring the possibility of signing Japanese outfielders Shogo Akiyama and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, a source told MLB.com. The Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin was the first to report the interest.

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The Rays have had internal discussions about exploring the possibility of signing Japanese outfielders Shogo Akiyama and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, a source told MLB.com. The Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin was the first to report the interest.

Akiyama, 31, has been one of the top players in Japan over the past few years. The outfielder slashed .303/.392/.471 in ‘19 with the Seibu Lions and has hit 69 home runs over the past three seasons. Multiple teams have expressed interest in the outfield, but the bidding could take a hit depending on the severity of an injury Akiyama suffered during the WBSC Premier 12 tournament in November. Akiyama suffered a broken bone on his right foot and his return to baseball activity remains unknown.

Other options in the outfield include Brandon Lowe, Mike Brosseau, Joey Wendle and Brian O’Grady, who the club acquired from Cincinnati earlier in the offseason. Lowe and Wendle, however are expected to handle most of the second base duties, while it’s uncertain if O’Grady will begin the season in the Majors or Triple-A Durham. O’Grady projects as a player that can play all three outfield spots but is viewed as a piece that adds valuable depth to the roster.

“Left-handed hitting option that has that kind of versatility and also covers the corners,” Neander said of O’Grady. “A nice guy to have in the mix to come in and compete and get to know him better before making any decisions about how exactly he fits. But we’re excited to have him right now.”

Bringing back García or Heredia remains a possibility for the Rays, who will continue to explore the market before making decisions. Neander said that the club didn’t have much activity on Monday, but that he expects conversations to pick up on Monday night and carry into Tuesday.

“This setting, with everyone here under one roof, it does serve as a catalyst for conversations and activity,” Neander said. “I think in that respect, would fully expect us to have conversations with clubs to see if we can push some things forward, and certainly free agents, as well.”

Aside from outfield help, the Rays will remain active in trying to find an upgrade at catcher. Mike Zunino and Michael Perez are the two projected catchers, and Neander said that the club feels confident in the pairing, but that it will continue to explore the free-agent and trade markets. The Cubs have reportedly made Willson Contreras available, which would be an interesting option for the Rays.

“We’re not going to force something,” Neander said. “We expect [Zunino] to bounce back some offensively. We expect better from [Perez] than what he contributed last year and for those reasons we were excited going into last year with those two.

“At the same time, we are trying to be really good and if we can get better there either by an established Major League player or by increasing the competition for [Perez’s] spot, those are two ways to do it and I think we’ll be open to whatever direction that takes on.”

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.