Insider: Big Free Agents Could Impact Rays’ Plan

With their top pitching prospect under contract until 2019, the Tampa Bay Rays will likely shift their immediate focus back to the 2012 team. Andrew Friedman and company left the winter meetings empty handed, but likely laid groundwork for potential moves down the road. Until players sign, we will continue to hear the Rays linked to names like: Johnny Damon, Casey Kotchman, Josh Willingham, Joel Zumaya, and others. Meanwhile, the trade market remains the most likely avenue for an impact deal to be made.

The Rays were never in the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, and will not be giving Prince Fielder $200 million, but the two prized free agents have the potential to impact moves made by Tampa Bay in the future. Because they play a position where the team is looking to upgrade, their signing destination could change who becomes available in trades. Take for example the Los Angeles Angels and Pujols. With $250 million invested in his right-handed bat, Pujols will man the bag at first base in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Angels already had some pretty good options at first base before the signing.

With Kendrys Morales still suffering from a 2010 leg injury, rookie Mark Trumbo received an opportunity to play every day in 2011. Although he offers little in the way of batting average and on-base percentage, Trumbo can flat out mash the baseball. His powerful right handed stroke produced 61 extra-base hits including 29 home runs. He finished the season with just 25 walks in 573 plate appearances, and probably will not improve much on his .254 batting average, but his power is legit and he rated as a good defender at first base.

Because of his age (25) and service time (five years away from free agency) the Angels will likely hold on to Trumbo. With Pujols at first, the team will give him a look at third base or the corner outfield. While Trumbo’s power and controllability are certainly attractive, the rest of his offensive game is not, and the price tag in a trade may be a lot higher than he is actually worth.

On the other hand, the man Trumbo replaced – Kendrys Morales – could be a more realistic option for the Rays. Prior to severely injuring his ankle during a walk-off celebration, Morales was the Angels power-hitting first baseman of the future. The Cuban native spent parts of three seasons in the major leagues before getting a full-time gig in 2009. He racked up 622 plate appearances that season, hitting.306/.355/.569. He smashed 34 home runs and produced a whopping 79 extra-base hits that year. He got off to a quick start in 2010 with 11 home runs in 51 games before the freak accident wiped out the rest of that season and the entire 2011 campaign.

Despite missing the season, Morales made $2.975 million last year as an arbitration-eligible player. He is likely to command a similar salary in his second year of eligibility; however, the Angels may not be willing to pay him another guaranteed salary without a guarantee that he can actually play in 2012. This makes him an interesting non-tender candidate. The deadline for tendering an arbitration-eligible player is Monday, meaning we should have a decision rather quickly.

If non-tendered, Morales could be interesting to the Rays as a potential buy-low free agent. Should the Angels retain his services, he could still attract interest as a trade target. Because of his uncertain medical status Tampa Bay is unlikely to give up much in trade value or guaranteed dollars, but a healthy Morales possess similar power potential to Trumbo with a much more expansive offensive profile. He does not show much discipline in terms of walks, but limits his strikeouts and makes excellent contact on pitches in the zone. Prior to the injury, he was an above-average defender at first. On a low-risk, one-year deal – with an additional year of service time included – he could be a steal for any team provided he can actually play.

The potential impact of Price Fielder signing is still to be determined. That said, if he signs with a team like the Seattle Mariners, we could hear names like Justin Smoak or Mike Carp become available. It appears unlikely that he signs with the Miami Marlins, but if our neighbors from the South surprise us again, it could put Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison on the block. Another name who may be influenced by his team making a move at first base is Mitch Moreland of the Texas Rangers.

The high-priced free agent market is uncharted territory for the Rays, but the secondary wave created by such signings could have a large impact on the team’s off-season plans.