Plenty of free-agent decisions on Rays' horizon
Team looks to add offense, as Upton, nine others can potentially hit market
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay ended the 2012 season on a high note, winning 12 of its final 14 games to finish a whisker out of the playoffs.
With a little more offense, the Rays probably would have played in October. Nevertheless, the work that needs to be done during the offseason does not appear to be major. Signing a free agent or two -- or making a trade before the 2013 season -- will likely shore up the team's offensive woes.
The big question is: How much can the Rays afford to spend to make that happen? Outfielder B.J. Upton, who hits the free-agent market this offseason, will likely be out of the Rays' price range, though he has expressed interest in remaining with the club that drafted him.
In the past, the Rays have done better in the free-agent market shopping in the bargain bin -- uncovering Fernando Rodney, Jeff Keppinger, and Carlos Pena (the first time around) to name a few -- while higher-priced free agents such as Luke Scott and Pat Burrell have not fared so well.
Based on that history, it's unlikely the Rays will dive into the deep end of the pool -- where the mid-range and mega free agents swim.
Instead, they will rely on scouting to select a player here or there who might be coming off an injury or a down season. In turn, these players with reduced value have incentive to join the Rays for at least a year to again prove themselves as Major Leaguers.
Many variables must be considered during the coming offseason -- and a lot of creative financing must take place by the Rays' front office.
Fortunately for Rays fans, in the team's front office they trust. Somehow the faith that they will get the job done always seems to get validated.
Players can start signing with other clubs after midnight ET on Friday.
The Rays have 10 potential free agents in Upton, Pena, J.P. Howell, Keppinger, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, James Shields, Jose Molina, Rodney and Scott.
Of that group, Shields, Molina, Scott and Rodney are all controlled by club options for next season.
Molina will be one of the tougher calls for management to make. Should the Rays bring back the veteran catcher at a cost of $1.8 million, or will they buy him out at $300,000?
Upton will be another interesting case. The center fielder -- drafted by the Rays with the second pick of the 2002 Draft -- may fall outside the club's price range, particularly if other teams are offering ridiculous money. Such a scenario is easy to imagine, because Upton is easy to fall in love with. He offers the kind of skills that can make him appear to be the best player in the game on any given day -- from the way he hits to the ground he covers in center field. Plus, he's proven himself to be a clutch performer in September.
Areas of need
First base: It doesn't appear that Pena will be back after his disappointing 2012 season. Internal candidates might include Henry Wrigley or Leslie Anderson. Other possibilities are re-signing Keppinger and making him the full-time first baseman or renewing Scott's option and putting him at first. Best guess would see the team going outside the organization via free agency or trade to fill the position.
Outfield: If Upton goes elsewhere, as expected, a shift in the outfield is possible -- perhaps Matt Joyce to left, Desmond Jennings to center and Ben Zobrist to right. Of course, moving Zobrist to right would force the Rays to find a shortstop internally or from outside the organization via free agency or trade. This one's a pick 'em. Fortunately for the Rays, they have a lot of flexibility -- which allows them to go in a lot of different directions.
Shortstop: If Zobrist remains at shortstop, this will not be a concern. If he moves elsewhere, like the outfield or second base, the team will have to plug Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, Tim Beckham or Hak-Ju Lee into the position. There's always the possibility of signing a free agent for the position, too.
Designated hitter: Scott could return to fill the role. The Rays could also sign a free agent -- which has not served them well at in the past, or they could have a revolving door at DH. Again, the roster's flexibility makes the latter option feasible.
Catcher: If the club does not pick up Molina's option, the catching duties will be left to Chris Giminez, Jose Lobaton and Stephen Vogt. The Rays could also sign or trade for a catcher.
Each year, the team's payroll is kept a mystery. In 2010, it reached $73 million; got pared to $42 million in 2011; then rose to $64 million in 2012.
Free agents notwithstanding, keeping the players the Rays have will come with a hefty price tag for next season.
Wade Davis, Evan Longoria, Zobrist and Matt Moore will cost $15.3 million. Shields and Rodney are locks to have their options picked up, so add another $12.75 million. Arbitration-eligible players include Johnson, Joyce, Sam Fuld, David Price, Jeff Niemann and Burke Badenhop. If tendered, add Ben Francisco and Ryan Roberts to that mix and the arbitration group comes to approximately $20 million -- moving the payroll in the neighborhood of $48 million.
That's assuming the Rays don't bring back free agents Pena, Upton and Farnsworth. They will have to make decisions on whether to exercise options for Molina and Scott -- $7.8 million if they keep both or $1.3 million if they elect to buy out both.
Finally, Howell, Peralta and Keppinger are all free agents, and there are still pre-arbitration players to be considered -- who come at a cost of at least the Major League minimum of $490,000.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.