Rays seeking more offense at Winter Meetings

December 7th, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays have been laying the groundwork throughout the offseason for what should be an interesting and eventful Winter Meetings, which get underway Monday in San Diego.

In order to create room on the 40-man roster, while also clearing up opportunities for potential acquisitions over the winter, the Rays elected to designate and for assignment, plus they non-tendered , making him an unrestricted free agent, and traded to the Reds.

Tampa Bay also retained , who was another potential non-tender candidate, signing him to a one-year deal in order to avoid arbitration. , who is a first baseman that is also capable of playing all three outfield positions, was acquired from Cincinnati to add more depth.

Then on Friday, the club made a surprise trade with the Padres that sent and to San Diego in exchange for , prospect and a player to be named.

As the club has continued to make minor moves, the belief is that the Rays will be heavily involved in trying to upgrade and complement a roster that won 96 games during the regular season and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2013.

"There's a lot of time between now and Opening Day, and I think I anticipate some twists and turns in terms of what our team will look like by the end of March when we get going," said general manager Erik Neander. "We really like the position group we have. [I'm] interested to see what that looks like, and we really like our pitching staff."

Club needs: The Rays will go into the Winter Meetings looking to improve the team's offense, especially with Pham now in San Diego. Tampa Bay had the lowest team ERA in the American League last season (3.67), but the offense struggled at times, finishing 18th in the Majors in runs scored per game, the lowest rank of the six AL playoff teams.

Even with Zunino returning, the Rays will continue to survey the fast-moving catcher market in order to try to improve at the position. is an in-house option that Tampa Bay was high on before the 2019 season, and there's still a possibility that he'll end up as the team's backup catcher heading into Spring Training. However, heading into the Winter Meetings, it appears more likely that the Rays will look to sign or trade for another catcher.

"The catching position is something we've talked about and that's pretty clear," Neander said. "I think bringing back [Zunino], we're betting on Mike to bounce back some offensively, but we can certainly continue to look for ways to strengthen that position further."

Whom might they trade? By trading Pham, the Rays are making it clear that they are willing to explore all avenues to, in their minds, improve the roster. The Rays won’t shop any individual players, but they’ll continue to look for ways to improve for 2020 and for the future. With multiple teams searching for starting pitching, the Rays could be a popular trade partner, but it'll take a good haul for them to move some of their pitching.

Prospects to know: Teams looking to improve their organization depth will surely be reaching out to the Rays about some of their prospects. Tampa Bay has a lot of prospects that it could add in a potential trade, if it believes it can improve the current and future of the Major League club. Infielders Vidal Brujan and Lucius Fox will be attractive options, while pitchers Joe Ryan and Shane Baz could also get some interest.

Rule 5 Draft: Brujan, Fox, Ronaldo Hernandez and Kevin Padlo were added to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft, but with the Rays having the No. 2 farm system in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline, there's a chance that other teams will look to poach a couple of prospects. Some of the prospects who could be taken in the Rule 5 Draft include Garrett Whitley, who was the team's first-round pick in 2015, Moises Gomez, who hit 16 home runs in Class A Charlotte last season, and Sam McWilliams, who was selected by the Royals in last year's Rule 5 Draft before being returned to Tampa Bay before the start of the Minor League season.

Payroll summary: With the Rays shedding Pham’s arbitration-eligible salary (projected at $8.6 million by MLB Trade Rumors), Tampa Bay is in good shape to potentially make some moves over the course of the winter. The Rays saved a projected $5 million in the Pham-Renfroe swap, which could be beneficial in other moves. Between , , , and Zunino, the Rays owe $38 million. Aside from that, the Rays will see , , and get a bump through arbitration, but nothing significant. It's still important to note that Tampa Bay feels confident about its young core and won't sign a veteran who could potentially block the development of younger players.

"We've been afford opportunities to be opportunistic when there's the right moment, the right player to do something, and we fully believe that to be the case this year," Neander said about the team's payroll. "I do believe there's some flexibility in that if the right deal comes along. That's not to raise expectations, that's just something that we're afforded."

One question: Will the Rays look to add right-handed hitting help?

Nothing really changed for the Rays after the Pham-Renfroe swap. They will still look for right-handed hitting throughout the winter and now have a little more flexibility with the 40-man roster, which now stands at 38. Heredia and are still in the mix to return, but Tampa Bay will look closely at the market during the Winter Meetings and throughout the winter. Players like , who provide power and a veteran presence, make sense for the Rays. They also need to find a way to replace Pham’s team-leading .369 OBP from a season ago.