Found October 19, 2012 on Fox Sports Florida:
Its only been two weeks since the Tampa Bay Rays scattered to the wind, heading to their respective homes to adjust to an offseason that arrived far earlier than they would have liked. Or since Rays vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon sat side-by-side in the teams auxiliary clubhouse delivering their post-mortem, instead of delving into the postseason. The disappointment of falling short, in spite of a noble dash to the finish line, was still fresh. And it wasnt the time for answers to questions about what Rays free agents might be back or how Friedman might intend to fill holes on the 2013 roster. The fact is, it could be months before he goes about the business of molding the club for next season, though speculation will undoubtedly begin to swirl as the annual Baseball Winter Meetings near, this time scheduled for Dec. 3-6 in Nashville, Tenn. But you can bet the gears in Friedmans mind have been turning, wondering about what players he may want to re-sign, and which ones he might be able to land through free agency or through a trade hell feel he can afford to make. This will mark the first year since Friedman arrived in 2005 that hell go it alone without the counsel of senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker. The former Astros GM and veteran baseball personnel guru announced Thursday that he was leaving the Rays after seven years to take a similar position with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet one thing wont change. Friedman will once again be operating within Tampa Bays tight payroll constraints, a reality that will likely keep many of the enticing free agents in this years market beyond reach. There are a few things that appear certain. The Rays are going to have to move on without the services of longtime center fielder B.J. Upton, who will likely command in the range of 50-to-60 million over the next five years from some team coveting his combination of power, speed and defense and willing to pony up the dough, especially given the big finish he had in 2012, with 19 of his career-high 28 homers coming after Aug. 1. And unless somebody makes him an offer he just cant refuse, Friedman is very likely going to stick with the wealth of starting pitching that put the Rays in position to challenge for a Wild Card berth in spite of their troublesome hitting. Without a doubt, he could land some players who might help shore up some weak spots if he were to package workhorse James Shields in a deal. But dont count on it, based on a message Friedman made clear two weeks ago to the assembled Tampa Bay-area media. We believe very, very strongly in pitching and defense, he said. And we ended up needing all of our pitching this year, and anticipate that's how it's going to be each and every year. "If we ever have to go to market for pitching, we are doomed as an organization. That season you can absolutely write off. We cannot compete with other teams for it. We can get creative and compete in other areas for players in the bullpen and different offensive players and how we put them together. Starting pitching is an area that I don't want to even challenge our guys to be creative enough to find ways to get better. We have it. It's something we've nurtured. They havent nurtured offense in the same way. And since theres no power in the minor-league pipeline, Friedmans challenge as always will be to find it by other means. Thats all part of the puzzle for the Rays, who have their share of free agents ready to hit the market, and some who may if the club doesnt exercise its option. Its never too early to start musing about the possibilities, even if the first pitch hasnt even been thrown in the World Series. So in that spirit, lets take a look at what we know about the Rays and their free-agent picture, and what some of their needs are heading into next year. For starters, the 2013 class of Tampa Bay free agents includes: first baseman Carlos Pena, Upton, relievers Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and J.P. Howell, infielderDH Jeff Keppinger and second baseman Ryan Roberts. The Rays also hold the 2013 options on DH Luke Scott and catcher Jose Molina, but that doesnt mean theyll be back. You would think that Keppinger would have earned a chance at a return engagement with the Rays, hitting .325 (125 for 325), wreaking havoc against left-handed pitching by hitting .376, and leading the club in batting. He also showed his versatility by playing second, third and first, and serving as DH. Keppinger can command a lot more than the 1.525 million he made last year for the Rays, so his return isnt a certainty. If the Rays are going to shell out big bucks for him, they would need him to be an everyday player. And the only question would be whether Keppinger could pound righties over the long haul the way he did lefties (he did bat .302 against righthanders last season and his .269 career average against them is great by Rays standards). Given that the team may well be in the market for a first baseman, one scenario worth pondering would be to move Keppinger there. Of course, thats traditionally a power spot in the lineup, and his nine homers in 2012 were a career high. Defensively, hed be a come-down from the likes of Carlos Pena and 2011 first baseman Casey Kotchman, whom the Rays didnt re-sign in spite of a .303 batting average because of a lack of power potential. Speaking of first base, it certainly doesnt look as if Pena will be returning after his colossally disappointing season (.197 average, 19 homers and 182 strikeouts) unless he agrees to a massive pay cut as a bench player and defensive backup. Scotts situation is a little more hazy. It would be easy to see the Rays parting ways with the player who, in spite of big expectations, spent two stints on the DL and batted .229 with only 14 homers in 314 at-bats. Its possible that Friedman might want to see how Scott would fare over the course of a full season and completely healed from the shoulder surgery that prevented him from playing outfield as he did with Baltimore. But considering it would cost the club 6 million to see if hed pan out under better circumstances, Scotts return seems iffy. Even while healthy, he did not perform consistently well (and set a club record for futile at-bats with an 0-for-41 streak). Farnsworth (1-6, 4.00) did nothing to make a case for getting a new deal, never approaching the shut-down season of 2011 after returning from his elbow injury. The bullpen will be just fine without him. The bigger question is whether the Rays will choose to pay Peralta and Howell, both of whom would like to return. Peralta earned 2.175 million last year and can get more after a second strong season as a set-up man (3.63 ERA, 84 Ks in 67 innings). Howell finally regained his form after missing the 2010 season and half of 2011 due to shoulder surgery, and he set the team scoreless innings record (27.1.). Howell earned 1.35 million last year and, like Peralta, could attract interest from a number of teams. Catcher remains an question mark heading into next year. Chris Gimenez hit .260 in 109 plate appearances with an array of clutch at-bats down the stretch (and hit .357 against lefties). That should be enough to earn him a part-time role in 2013. Then the decision is whether to find another catcher on the open market or exercise the option on Molina, who hit .223 in limited duty (251 at-bats) but gives the Rays a veteran presence working with the pitching staff. He earned 1.5 million in 2012 and you wouldnt think other teams will be clamoring for his services. Neither Jose Lobaton nor Robinson Chirinos appear to the answer as front-line players. Meanwhile, it appears that a long-standing question has been solved at shortstop. Ben Zobrist excelled at the position after being moved there in August. He and star third baseman Evan Longoria give the Rays great defense on the left side of the infield and offensive pop in the batting order. Second base is a bit of an unknown. Does Friedman re-sign scrappy Ryan Tat-man Roberts? He has a good glove and some power, but he hit a disappointing .214 after joining the Rays mid-way through the season in a deal with Arizona (and didnt come cheap at 2.0125 million). Do they keep Keppinger, play him at second and go in search of a free-agent first baseman with power? Its hard to envision Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac all making the roster as backups Brignac would seem to be the odd man out as he was before his September call-up. With Upton leaving, the most likely scenario would have Desmond Jennings moving from left to center, with Matt Joyce playing either left or right and Sam Fuld capable of playing all three positions extremely well as a fourth outfielder while seeing occasional starts. The Rays could try to re-sign late-season acquisition Ben Francisco, who had his moments as a starter in right and left. He hit only .228 in 57 at-bats but is a .257 career hitter in six seasons. Or Friedman could go shopping in the bargain aisle for another starting outfielder with some power. And who knows, maybe he would roll the dice on Scott and play him in the outfield, assuming his shoulder would finally be 100 percent. The good news is that they have an option on Fernando Rodney, who on Friday won Comeback Player of the Year and Delivery Man of the Year in the AL. No surprise there. Rodney set the all-time ERA record for a season at 0.60 (for more than 50 innings) and established a Rays saves record with 48. And potential AL Cy Young winner David Price (20-6) isnt going anywhere. For that matter, expect that the Rays will be strong on starting and relief arms across the board. Once again, the million-dollar question is whether Friedman can somehow find the additional bats this offseason on a limited budget to support them.
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