They made no moves; however, the Tampa Bay Rays were very busy on the first day of Major League Baseball’s winter meetings. Perhaps the most imporant – yet expected – news of the day was Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman declinining the Houston Astros offer to run their baseball operations and remaining with the Rays. Although they will not comment on rumors, the club admitted they are receiving a lot of calls on their starting pitchers, and earlier reports said they are willing to listen to offers for B.J. Upton, but would require a substantial return to part with the center fielder. In addition to the rumors we have heard before, there was a late afternoon buzz that the team is making a serious run at outfielder/designated hitter Josh Willingham and have checked in on free agent reliever Luis Ayala.
Willingham, 32, is a natural fit for the Rays’ needs. A right-handed bat with power, “the hammer” hit a career –high 29 home runs as a member of the Oakland Athletics in 2011. There is some thought that he could hit even more should he escape the Oakland Coliseum which zapped right-handed power. His shift in approach – pulling the ball to left field – could be a nice pairing of ability and dimensions in Tropicana Field where the wall is left is lower than most parks.
Willingham did walk less and strikeout more than ever last season. This is a concern for an aging player, but a quick review by the scouting department should determine if that was an erosion of skill or a change in philosophy to hit the ball harder and further. Unfortunately, the Rays are one of many teams interested in his services and are not likely to get into a bidding war for a one-dimensional player.
Ayala, 33, has also caught the interest of the Rays and a reported handful of other teams. Meanwhile, unlike Willingham, Ayala would not be a true fit. Yes, he is a relief pitcher who posted a 2.09 ERA as a member of the New York Yankees in 2011. Yes, Tampa Bay is in the market for one or two relief pitchers to augment the current group of relievers they have; however, Ayala’s 2.09 ERA comes with mediocre peripherals and a checkered medical past.
Traditionally, medical records do not scare the Rays away, but paying an aging reliever guaranteed millions for a past performance should. Ayala does possess the ability to keep the ball on the ground, but does not miss many bats, and did not show a significant change in process to suggest the results of last season are repeatable. For a spring training invite, the Rays could get someone who is cheaper, younger, and has more upside (Looking at you Joel Zumaya).