Done, For Now

The only people busier than I this week was the Rays front office. I had the “pleasure” of traveling to Minnesota in the midst of a winter storm that saw wind chills down to -20 then had a lot of last minute magazine work sent my way for one of the Fanball Fantasy Baseball Magazines. Last night, the Rays did their final procedural moves of the off-season an capped off a very busy week as they made their final offers to the players that were still under team control. Most of these moves were assumed to be routine but two players that most viewed as unlikely to get new offers were Gabe Gross and Dioner Navarro.

It was thought Gross would be a victim of the numbers game as the club already had Crawford, Upton, and Kapler under contract and were expected to promote Matt Joyce to start the season. Gross made 1.25m last season and even that number is a bit high for a fifth outfielder when the Rays can keep Fernando Perez whose defense is just as solid for less than half that price.  Navarro was in danger of being non-tendered after a very disappointing 2009 season both at the plate and behind the plate. He did have off-season surgery on his elbow that was not talked about much in the season which may or may not have led to his struggles.  In the end, the Rays did indeed non-tender Gross but did re-sign Navarro for the exact same amount he made in 2009.

It is rare to see a young player sign for the same amount but I think it shows a sign of maturity when Navarro recognizes he under-delivered in 2009 and was willing to come back at the same rate and earn his raise after the 2010 season. There were a few teams that were looking at Navarro should he be non-tendered so it is not as if he was backed into this decision. Instead, I think it was the Rays who were backed into inking Navarro to the deal. We have already discussed that both he and Kelly Shoppach do not hit right-handed pitching well so they do not make much sense as a platoon but the Rays must not have felt that strongly about heading into 2010 with rookies Jose Lobaton or John Jaso as the back-up catcher. This does not rule out the Rays trading Navarro this off-season to one of the interested parties but given how dry the free agent catching market is, it is unlikely. After all, the Nationals and Royals saw it necessary to offer fossils Pudge Rodriguez and Jason Kendall two year deals. All Rays fans should be thankful our management is not that foolish. Shawn Riggans was also non-tendered because I think the Rays were concerned he would strain a finger tendon attempting to sign his new contract which would have put him back on the disabled list for the umpteenth time as a member of the organization.

Heading into the off-season, I stated my off-season wish list was three-fold:

  • Get bullpen help – DONE
  • Get catching help – DONE
  • Get Milton Bradley – incomplete

According to tweets and such, the Rays and Cubs were “close” to a deal just about every day of the winter meetings but nothing happened. Understand, the Cubs are in the worst position possible because everyone knows they want to move him so teams are just bleeding out the Cubs for every possible nickle and dime to cover a majority of Bradley’s contract.  I still maintain this deal will get done, but the Rays are more than happy to sit back and wait for the Cubs to cry uncle. If they want to trade for Carlos Silva and send Bradley to Seattle, by all means, feel free to do it.

I still cannot get over the fact the Rays have traded for a high-priced player while moving a cheap one because for years, it has always been the other way around.  Rafael Soriano’s 7.25m deal is the second most money the club has paid a pitcher in the history of the club; Wilson Alvarez was paid 9m years ago. Soriano is worth the cash because he is the high impact arm the Rays sorely needed last year and could have used in 2008 in the playoff run as well.  Last season, only Jonathan Broxton had a higher percentage of his opponents’ at bats end in a strikeout in the National League as Broxton struck out 38% of the batters he faced while Soriano struck out 33%. If you include the American League, only Michael Wuertz and Broxton struck out batters more often.  Of course, Soriano comes with some injury ref flags as the converted outfielder has had elbow and shoulder issues in his time with both Seattle and Atlanta. Soriano’s strikeout rate has gone up each of the past three seasons and for his career, opponents are hitting .204 against him. The Rays could have gone the traditional cheap route and just used what was within the system allowing Balfour and Howell to alternate in relief while adding someone like Jeremy Hellickson to the bullpen but the Rays went the safer route and invested in someone who has proven to be a very effective reliever who was a solid closer last season once the opportunity presented itself. In 75.2 innings last year for Atlanta, Soriano gave up just 53 hits while striking out 102. If you enjoyed Grant Balfour in 2008, you are really going to enjoy Rafael Soriano in 2010.  Remember, this trade was essentially Akinori Iwamura for Rafael Soriano – and while Iwamura is a first class guy, this was a move that had to be done as it was trading from a position of strength to address a position of weakness.

The Rays have been active on the non-tender market in the past and I expect them to kick the tires on some guys this off-season as well. Last year, they added Lance Cormier who was non-tendered by the Orioles and he ended up being a very valuable part of the bullpen in 2009.  I know some fans are asking for the Rays to bring Jonny Gomes back, but that is not in the best interest of the club. If they want to look at a terrible defensive outfielder that can only hit lefties, I’d rather add Marcus Thames.  the one name I would like to see them look at is Matt Capps, formerly of the Pirates. He had a rough 2009 with some elbow issues that did not require any type of surgery but he is much better than last year’s 5.80 ERA. In the 3 seasons before that, he had a 3.04 ERA, a 4.8 strikeout to walk ratio, held batters to a .242 average, and permitted 1.05 baserunners per nine innings.

The Rays are seemingly done on the open market, for now. There is not an obvious hole on the roster the club needs to address via free agency at this time but I expect the club to still continue to monitor the catching situation and listen to offers on players such as Bartlett, Crawford, and Pena or at least try to be involved in the Adrian Gonzalez sweepstakes since San Diego seems intent on moving him. Given the lack of an obvious first base solution on the team right now past 2010, the Rays either must re-sign Pena after this season, move Zobrist to first base in 2011, or look for a solution on the trade or free agent market.

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About Jason Collette

Writer/Analyst
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