Rays in good shape this winter
If Tampa Bay makes a move at Meetings, 'pen help, DH on its list
ST. PETERSBURG -- Given the fact Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings last for a finite amount of time and the Rays operate as though their team is a living organism and must constantly be tended to, don't expect Tampa Bay to feel compelled to make something happen in Las Vegas next week.
Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, is ready for this year's Meetings at the Bellagio from Dec. 8-11, but he continued to take the familiar stance.
"There is oftentimes more hype associated with the Winter Meetings than substance," Friedman said. "All 30 teams have been in regular communication for months, so for the most part, you have a pretty good feel for who you match up with by November.
"That said, sometimes it is helpful to get everyone together in one venue, so we will definitely be prepared, as every year, if something comes up that hadn't been discussed previously."
If the Rays are looking to accomplish anything in Las Vegas, there are areas the team would like to shore up for the 2009 season.
"In an ideal world, we would like to improve our offense and add depth to our bullpen," Friedman said.
Looking at what the Rays need in the way of offense means exploring for a power-hitting designated hitter and perhaps a right-handed-hitting right fielder who could platoon with Gabe Gross. If the season started today, switch-hitting Willy Aybar and Gross would be the likely starters at DH and right field, respectively. Aybar and Gross were major contributors to Tampa Bay winning the American League pennant in 2008, but there is room for improvement.
What happens with free agent Rocco Baldelli could determine some of what happens in right field and DH.
The Rays placed Baldelli, 27, on the 60-day disabled list on March 28 with a mitochondrial disorder, a condition that slows muscle recovery and causes fatigue, costing him the first 116 games of the 2008 season; he also missed the final 124 games of '07 due to a hamstring injury.
Baldelli fought his way back to the Major Leagues and returned in August to hit .263 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 28 games, playing a key role during the team's postseason drive.
Due to Baldelli's condition, the question remains: How much can he be counted on to play? If he's the starting right fielder more days than not, he could be a plus in right. But the prospect of Baldelli becoming the everyday DH might not be quite as feasible. While he is a strong offensive player, he might not be a strong enough run producer to claim the DH spot full time.
The Baldelli question won't likely be answered until after the big free agents begin to sign, which should provide an interesting period for the Rays. Where the market settles could determine if the Rays decide to bring in a free agent to fill the DH or right-field spots. If Tampa Bay goes with a free agent, the values established by the market will likely decide which one it signs. A bear market could see the Rays pounce on a nice talent.
Some interesting options that are out there include: Adam Dunn, Milton Bradley, Jason Giambi and Pat Burrell. The key to watch for is if any of these players does not get the multiyear deal they want and has to settle for a one-year arrangement. Based on today's economy, the glut of offense on the market and the fact that most teams want to go leaner -- financially and athletically -- the Rays could come away with a bargain.
The Rays worked from the top down when addressing bullpen issues prior to the 2008 season by signing closer Troy Percival, which made the rest of the relief corps stronger by allowing everyone to move down a notch. Now Percival is a question mark for 2009 because of his health. The veteran righty can get the job done when he's healthy, so having him back would benefit the club a great deal by having his experience at the end of the game. This would allow Tampa Bay to groom another closer for the future, such as Grant Balfour or perhaps Edwin Jackson, depending on how the starting rotation shakes out.
In any case, the Rays have a lot of pitching depth that should allow them to find a closer from within their ranks if Percival is not healthy, or manager Joe Maddon might just elect to go "closer by committee" as he did at the end of 2008.
Thus, Tampa Bay will likely be looking for relief help, but it'll be searching in the area of bullpen components to augment an already strong bullpen rather than acquiring big pieces for an overhaul.
In essence, the Rays will head to Las Vegas in a strong bargaining position. They don't need to make a deal, but they will always be glad to listen to ideas that could make the AL champions even stronger.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.