Rays’ belt-tightening won't cause asphyxiation

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports
B.J. Upton is one of the Rays' few veteran position players after a leaky offseason

Rays’ belt-tightening won't cause asphyxiation

B.J. Upton is one of the Rays' few veteran position players after a leaky offseason

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports examined the offseason of every MLB team before spring training began. Our series concludes with the Tampa Bay Rays.

2010 record: 96-66
Finish: First place, AL East
2010 final payroll: $77.5 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $43 million

Offseason action

Part of the Tampa Bay Rays experience is an offseason like the one that's coming to a close. On one hand, watching Carl Crawford(notes), Rafael Soriano(notes), Joaquin Benoit(notes), Carlos Pena, Grant Balfour(notes) and others get paid elsewhere for what they did in a Rays uniform illustrates in harrowing fashion life as the fifth team in a division whose other four average a payroll of $131 million. And yet it's invigorating, too, this building-on-the-fly endeavor general manager Andrew Friedman and his crack staff face seemingly every winter.

Never mind that 35 players in the division will make more than the Rays' highest-paid player, Johnny Damon(notes), who's getting $5.25 million after signing in an odd package deal with a $2 million Manny Ramirez(notes). They are supposed to fortify a lineup without nearly the pop of the Yankees or Red Sox. They could well hit the age wall, too, and leave the Rays out 15 percent of their payroll.

It's always about money in Tampa Bay, and with starter Matt Garza(notes) and shortstop Jason Bartlett(notes) creeping up the arbitration ladder, they went to Chicago and San Diego, respectively. The haul for Garza was potentially immense: another starter for an already-deep rotation (Chris Archer(notes)), a shortstop in case Reid Brignac(notes) doesn't work out (Hak-Ju Lee), a late-blooming catcher (Robinson Chirinos) and a couple of outfield pieces (Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld(notes)). All but Lee could be in a Rays uniform at some point this season.

The Bartlett deal brought four pitchers, and they will fight for jobs with J.P. Howell(notes), Kyle Farnsworth(notes), Joel Peralta(notes) and Juan Cruz(notes), making the Rays' bullpen completely overhauled, and not for the better. Reinforcements are coming from the minor leagues in Jake McGee(notes) and perhaps Alex Torres, but it doesn't make the reality any less glaring: The Rays' weakness is their bullpen, and if it doesn't torpedo them early, owner Stuart Sternberg ought open his purse strings and let Friedman deal a prospect or two for some legitimate bullpen help.

While losing Crawford was painful, the Rays had fed themselves plenty of Demerol knowing it was coming. They got their compensatory draft picks and focused on this year, on another run to the playoffs amid a strengthened AL East, on just another version of the perpetual rebuilding that's de rigueur in baseball's underclass.

Reality check

Better than anything, Friedman handles the Rays' perpetual balance between now and next with a deft touch. The organization is honest with its players about its fiscal reality, and they could mope or accept it. They choose the latter.

And so contention this year is again on the table, even after the offseason bleeding. Most teams in Tampa Bay's position would be looking forward to the June draft, and it would be tough to blame. No team has ever entered a draft with as many picks as the Rays will in 2011, and what a wonderful year to carry such a haul. One scouting director said recently "this is going to be like '05" – the Justin Upton(notes), Ryan Zimmerman(notes), Ryan Braun(notes), Troy Tulowitzki(notes), Andrew McCutchen(notes), Jay Bruce(notes), Colby Rasmus(notes) draft – "only better." The Rays will miss the top wave of stars, but the secondary talent is strong, too, and with pick Nos. 24, 31, 32, 38, 41, 42, 52, 56, 59, 60 and 75 – 10 of those 11 via free-agent compensation – they can take what's widely considered the second-best farm system in baseball and make it better.

Prospects are already bubbling up. The Garza trade frees a spot for Jeremy Hellickson(notes) in the rotation. Speedy outfielder Desmond Jennings(notes) should find enough playing time for 400 plate appearances should he stay healthy. Archer could be up by June. And Matt Moore(notes), the minor league strikeout leader the last two seasons, could be on the cusp of a call-up by September.

As is, the Rays have plenty of starting pitching, led by David Price(notes) and backed by Wade Davis(notes) and Jeff Niemann(notes). Whether James Shields(notes) is simply a mediocre innings eater or the strong No. 3 he was in 2007 and '08 is something the Rays hope to answer by the beginning of the season, because Friedman always wants to be one move ahead, lest the Yankees or Red Sox try to buy their way past him.

Oh, the big-money boys are shrewd, too. Focusing on their cash doesn't give Brian Cashman or Theo Epstein nearly the credit they deserve. What Friedman has done in such circumstances, however, merits annual mention. He's always thinking, always maneuvering, always doing something, because the moment he doesn't, the Rays will sink back to the morass in which they were trapped for a decade.

As the quicksand of the AL East churns, the Rays need not panic. They're in good shape and getting better.

Rays in haiku
The poor Rays wish that
Baseball were like divorce court
"Need alimony!"

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