It's nice to see some off-season rumblings on the Tampa Bay Rays front these days, especially given the prolonged plunge of the Bucs and the ongoing rollercoaster ride of the Lightning.
The news Wednesday that the club had signed veteran reliever Fernando Rodney for 1.75-million in 2012 (including a 2.5-million option or 250,000 buyout in 2013) is both intriguing and cause for some concern.
On the positive side, the 34-year-old from the Dominican Republic could provide some welcome support for last year's de factor closer Kyle Farnsworth. If he can be the same guy he was in 2009 with Detroit, with 37 saves in 38 appearances, Rodney definitely would bolster the late-inning relief corps of the Rays.
But that's the question. Are the Rays getting the '09 Rodney (who also averaged 7.3 strikeouts and 4.9 walks per nine innings with a 2-5 record and 4.40 ERA) or are they getting the pitcher who was less effective with the Angels the past two seasons?
In 2010, he posted a mark of 4-3 with a 4.45 ERA and in 2011 he fought through a back injury (and six weeks on the disabled list) to go 3-5 with three saves and a 4.50 ERA with his walk total per innings exceeding his strikeouts, 7.9 to 7.3.
The other issue is whether the Rays' acquisition of the hard-throwing righthander signals any problems with Farnsworth, who was sensational during most of the season but limited down the stretch with tenderness in his throwing elbow. If so, Rodney could be the man entrusted with saving games and it's been a while since he's done that with any consistency.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman certainly set the bar high when the signing was announced: "Fernando's pure stuff is top-notch and can beat hitters both in and out of the strike zone," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "We feel he will be able to maximize his ability with us to further strengthen our bullpen."
You have to give Friedman credit when it comes to finding free agent relievers who've blossomed or re-blossomed after donning a Tampa Bay uniform. The recent roll call of Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit in 2010, followed by Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, who came on strong during the Rays' surge to the playoffs, are evidence of that.
So maybe Rodney will be magically transformed, too. And if Farnsworth (5-1, 2.18 ERA with 25 saves in 31 chances) regains the form he displayed most last season and Peralta picks up where he left off, posting an ERA of 2.93 with six saves in eight attempts, that's great news for the bullpen.
His presence could conceivably take some pressure off of J.P. Howell, who fell far short of expectations coming back from shoulder surgery and often cost the Rays big in key situations.
Manager Joe Maddon is still a Howell believer. Who knows if the cagey lefty will ever regain his wily, old ways. But hey since this is the time of year to ponder possibilities if Howell can shake off his frustrating 2011 campaign (weighed down with a 6.16 ERA) and return to his stellar pre-injury form, the pen could look have the makings of a formidable unit.
Rodney's signing is certainly in keeping with the Rays' limited payroll structure. They're forced to build the team by shopping in baseball's discount aisle for bargain players with a potential upside.
That paid off in a big way last season with one-season deals with DH Johnny Damon (5.25-million) and first baseman Casey Kotchman (a minor-league pact worth 750,000 plus incentives) as both players became key performers for Tampa Bay.
An Orlando resident, Damon emerged as a genuine team leader and hit .261 with 29 doubles, three triples and 16 homers, while climbing an array of all-time batting lists and pulling with within 277 hits of 3,000. Another hometown product, Kotchman hit .306 and anchored the infield with Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base.
Whether the tandem will be back in 2012 remains one of the pressing questions with training camp a month-and-a-half away. The fact that the Rays haven't re-signed them yet suggests that there still looking for a way to upgrade the power possibilities of the lineup.
Despite his strong average and glove, the left-handed Kotchman only hit 10 homers with 48 RBI. Damon provided many sparks at the plate, but tailed off later in the season and his power numbers aren't typically what teams want from the DH spot.
It would be good to see them both back. Kotchman provided invaluable stability to the infield defense and hit with refreshing consistency on a team that often did not. But he may ultimately command a salary beyond what the Rays can afford, even if they are interested.
Meanwhile, Damon looks like he's on a track that will lead to Cooperstown. He'll continue to climb all-time offensive charts as he did in 2011 and could conceivably reach the 3,000 hit milestone in 2013. It'd be nice to see him do so as a Ray. For a team that struggles with attendance, there's some definite marketing potential of his quest for baseball greatness. And he's proven he can still contribute, on and off the field. Damon appears eager to return and would probably agree to a deal the Rays can afford.
As for shortstop, that's another matter entirely. Reid Brignac's weak hitting (.193) remains too much of a liability for the team. It seems likely that the Rays will deal from their position of strength starting pitching and package either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann prior to the season. And it's possible they could even dangle All-Star ace James Shields or struggling southpaw David Price, a Cy Young finalist in 2010, if they found the right young bat with a long-term future with the team.
Angels slugging first basemanDH Mark Trumbo, who hit .254 with 29 homers as a rookie last season, has been mentioned in recent speculation With superstar Albert Pujols now in the lineup, Trumbo could become available at the right price. That, of course, would immediately impact the fates of either Damon or Kotchman.
Another subject of conjecture: former Rays star first baseman Carlos Pena, who left last year for a one-year, 10-million contract with the Cubs. Pena hit 28 homers with Chicago, but his batting average once again left something to be desired at .225 (though an improvement over his .196 BA with the Rays in 2010). Pena also fanned 161 times, the same general vicinity of his strikeout totals in Tampa Bay. As good a defender and clubhouse presence as Pena is, he's too big a hole in the batting order.
One thing seems clear: the Rays are not done dealing. This is the month they usually wait to add a missing piece or two. Two years ago, they signed Pat Burrell in early January (a move, of course, they'd come to regret). And last year, they made waves with the double-bill signings of Manny Ramirez and Damon (regretting half of that move, when Ramirez retired in early April rather than face a heavy suspension for failing another drug test).
Bringing Rodney on board this week is likely just a little warmup. The real action is yet to come and, judging from recent history, the big picture could be much clearer before the month is done.