Rays Busy Offseason Lays Groundwork For Championship Run
In their first 11 years of their existence the Tampa Bay Rays never lost less than 90 games in a season but ever since their meteoric rise which saw them flip the script in 2008 (97 wins) they have fallen short of the 90-win plateau only once (86 wins in 2009).
Since their World Series appearance in 2008 they have compiled a record of 453-358 (.559 win%), have won 90-games in each of the last four seasons, and have participated in the postseason in 2010, 2011, and 2013.
Unfortunately in recent years they have struggled to advance in the post-season. In 2010 and 2011 they fell to the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series (ALDS) and last year after defeating the Cleveland Indians in the American League Wild Card game they once again fell short of advancing past the ALDS losing to the Boston Red Sox in four games.
During the post-season matchup with the Red Sox Rays Manager Joe Maddon was asked whether or not winning 90-games without winning it all was getting kind of stale? “If people are getting stale, if it does appear to be stale, I feel badly for them.” Maddon said. Adding that “you do want to win the final prize, their’s no question about that.”
Just getting to the post-season last year was taxing on the Rays who were in must win games beginning with their matchup with the Toronto Blue Jays beginning September 29th in Toronto, then defeating the Texas Rangers the next night in Arlington, traveling back north to Cleveland and beating the Indians in the Wild Card game, and finally opened the division series against Boston on October 3rd. All told the Rays played in three elimination games in four days in three separate cities.
During the State of the Rays at the opening of Spring Training Maddon said, “the drive is to not have to go through the angst of the end of last season of Toronto to Texas to Cleveland to finally get to play Boston. That really personifies the fact that you want to win the division.”
In laying out the team goals for the upcoming season the Rays manager said that drive has to be not just to make the playoffs to get and win your division. “The goal is always to win the World Series,” Maddon said. “To play the last game of the year and win it. To eat last. I want my guys to eat last.”
The Rays spent the winner turning over the roster and appear to have a strong nucleus of players that will challenge for the AL East Title and a deep run into the post-season.
Disabled List: Jeremy Hellickson (Elbow)
To be determined: Juan Carlos Oviedo
At the end of the season nine members of the 2013 squad were granted free agency – James Loney, Kelly Johnson, Jose Molina, Luke Scott, Roberto Hernandez, Delmon Young, Jesse Crain, Fernando Rodney, and Jamey Wright. Later the team chose not to pick up the option on Juan Carlos Oviedo or tender a contract to Jeff Niemann, Sam Fuld, or Wesley Wright making them free agents as well.
The Rays had a lot of work to do to replace the components lost and had a series of decisions to make on other players, specifically David Price.
Retain David Price:
While some teams have to wonder how to proceed when they are in a perceived “win-now” mode – should they mortgage the future and tradeaway their young players for established stars in order to make that one last push?
The Rays on the other hand have to routinely decide if they should hold on to established stars for one additional season and take the risk of injury and poor performance or trade the player and re-stock the farm with high-ceiling cost controlled players.
The merits of keeping or trading David Price were debated all winter long and in the end the Rays decided to hold on to their prized possession. The decision was made for a variety of reasons. First the pitching market was slow to develop as Masahiro Tanaka was made available by his Japanese team. Later in the winter A.J. Burnett was a late entry into the market when he decided against retiring. Ultimately, the Rays chose to keep Price because he gives them the best chance of winning the American League East and possibly the World Series.
The Rays had other decisions to make over the offseason that would impact the 2014 squad. The first decisions were whether or not to pick up contract options on Ben Zobrist ($7M), Yunel Escobar ($5M), Juan Carlos Oviedo ($2M), and David DeJesus ($6.5M). The decisions on Zobrist and Escobar were no brainers but Oviedo and DeJesus required some bit of thought.
The Rays acquire DeJesus from the Washington National on August 23rd and in 35 games with the Rays he posted a triple slash line of .260/.328/.413 batting in the leadoff spot versus mostly against right handed pitcher. The team decided to pick his option up and then extended the deal to 2-years with a guaranteed $10.5M. He will make $4.5M in 2014, $5M in 2015, and a club option for $5M in 2015 (with a $1M buyout). The deal also included a $250K signing bonus.
Juan Carlos Oviedo:
Juan Carlos Oviedo signed with the Rays prior to the 2013 season and was expected to be recovered from Tommy John Surgery by the end of the season. He never was healthy enough to appear in a game with the team but his 2014 option was only $2M with a $30K buyout. The team elected not to pick up the option allowing Oviedo to test the free agent market. He re-signed with the Rays at the end of November on a 1-year $1.5M deal which includes $1.4M in performance bonuses.
Free Agent Signings:
After a brief exploratory period on the free agent market Jose Molina decided on returning to the Rays. On November 24, 2013 he agreed on a 2-year contract worth $4.5M.
Like Molina Rays first baseman James Loney fielded offers from several teams on the open market and ultimately decided to return to the Rays signing a 3yr/$21M deal which became the biggest free agent contract ever given out by Andrew Friedman.
Early in the offseason Grant Balfour had reached a tentative deal with the Baltimore Orioles on a 2-year/$15M contract. The deal was pending a physical which much to Balfour and his doctors surprise he did not pass. Back on the open market he had several offers but chose to return home to the Rays organization where he spent the 2007 through 2010 season to serve as the teams closer. He signed a 2-year deal worth $12M which includes a $1M signing bonus and a salary of $4M in 2014 and $7M in 2015.
The Rays made a trio of trades during the offseason. On December 3rd, 2013 the Rays made a three team trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds which gave them a starting catcher in Ryan Hanigan and a possible closer candidate in Heath Bell.
The deal included the Rays sending minor leaguers Justin Choate and Todd Glaesmann to the Diamondback who sent David Holmberg to the Reds – the Rays received catcher Ryan Hanigan from the Reds and Heath Bell from the Diamondbacks.
The Rays have been linked to Ryan Hanigan in the past and acquiring him would make Jose Lobaton available in trade later in the winter. Like his teammate Jose Molina Hanigan is known for his pitch framing and defensive skills but also brings the ability to get on base. The 2013 season was an injury filled down year for him posting a slash line of just .198/.306/.261 but from 2007-2012 he hit much better .275/.370/.360. Shortly after he was acquired he agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $10.75M. The contract also includes a club option for 2017.
Heath Bell is a free spirited fun loving guy who spent the past two seasons playing under the tense rule of Ozzie Guillen (2012) and Kirk Gibson (2013). He was the closer for the San Diego Padres where he excelled first as a setup man then as a closer. From 2009-2011 he served as the Padres closer and raked up 132 saves while posting an ERA of 2.36 over a span of 202.1 innings pitched. Like many other relievers before him he will look to revive his career in the Rays player friendly environment under the tutelage of Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey.
On January 22, 2014 the Rays sent Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn to the San Diego Padres and received utility player Logan Forsythe, reliever Brad Boxberger, minor league pitchers Matt Andriese and Matt Lollis, and minor league infielder Maxx Tissenbaum.
Forsythe battled plantar fasciitis through most of the 2013 season which limited him to just 75 games and resulted in a poor showing at the plate posting a triple slash line of .214/.281/.332. The Rays hope that a return to health will allow for better production at the plate more in line with his 2012 numbers of .273/.343/.390. He can play all over the diamond and is a much better hitter versus left handed pitching than right handed pitching.
The Rays were quite busy this offseason re-signing familiar faces, trading for new ones, and adding players via trade. The end result is not only one of the deepest 25-man rosters but 40-man rosters as well. The 2014 season should be an exciting one that sees the Rays once again claim victory of the American League East and hopefully brings the Tampa Bay Area their first World Series Championship.