Rays hope to keep core, but expect changes in '14
Heading into offseason, biggest question is whether Price will remain with club
PETERSBURG -- Rays fans have grown accustomed to trusting the team's management to field a quality team. Six consecutive winning seasons and four trips to the playoffs in that stretch will do that to a fan base.
One of the constants for each of those teams was change. And as usual, change will be in the air as the Rays look to 2014.
"It's who we are," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "We've had a lot of change, really, every offseason. There hasn't been an offseason with minimal turnover. The important thing is that for the most part, our core guys have stayed in place, and we've been able to supplement around our core group.
"I anticipate there will be a decent amount of turnover. That being said, there are a lot of guys who are going to be free agents from our 2013 team that we might bring back. There might not be that much turnover, but that's really difficult to answer right now."
The first order of business will be deciding who to keep from the 2013 club, and in that vein, the top question is: How will the Rays proceed with ace David Price? The options include signing him to a multi-year deal, proceeding to arbitration or trading him to add youngsters to fuel future Rays teams.
If Price remains with the Rays, they will have a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher on their roster. If he doesn't, it's likely they will gain a high yield in return for his services, something along the lines of what they got from the Royals when they traded James Shields prior to this season and came away with outfielder Wil Myers.
Based on the organization's finances, they will be forced to continue to operate in an efficient manner, which sometimes makes for hard decisions. On the bright side, the Rays have a handful of prospects that make the future look brighter than ever, particularly where pitching is concerned. Aside from Price, their starting rotation boasts the likes of Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Chris Archer, with plenty of young arms pushing up through the ranks of the organization's farm system.
"I think we have a great group of guys here, and I think it's good going forward next year," said Myers, who is a solid candidate to win the American League Rookie of the Year award. "We still have a lot of guys coming back. So it's going to be exciting next year."
Evan Longoria allowed that "it's definitely tough" to see teammates go.
"But at the same time, you understand how much of a business the game is, as much as it is a profession and a game that we play. Everybody has to do what they need to do to get what they want out of it, whether it's a player moving on to either bigger or better things or that better suits their needs, or the front office and staff making the moves that they need to make us better for the future," the third baseman said.
"It's tough to stand here and think that maybe some of the guys I've played with for a while may not be in the same clubhouse with us again next year. But really, my goal has to be to prepare myself the best I can for the next year."
Arbitration-eligible: Price, Jeff Niemann, Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Sam Fuld, Jake McGee, Hellickson, Cesar Ramos, Chris Gimenez, Wesley Wright, Jose Lobaton.
Free agents: Roberto Hernandez, Luke Scott, Fernando Rodney, James Loney, Jose Molina, Kelly Johnson, Jesse Crain, Jamey Wright, Delmon Young.
Rotation: The rotation should look a lot like 2013 with Price, Cobb, Moore, Archer and Hellickson.
Price should be the No. 1 starter, unless the Rays decide to trade the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner rather than go into arbitration. If he returns, he's a safe bet to rebound from an odd season in 2013 that saw him shelved for approximately a month and a half on the disabled list.
Despite having to miss a large portion of the season after getting hit in the head with a line drive on June 15, Cobb finished 2013 as the Rays' most consistent starter. He has three pitches, good command and is extremely competitive.
Moore had a hot start, but at times the numbers looked better than what he was doing on the mound. He can potentially throw a no-hitter any night he takes the mound, but he continues to have command issues.
Archer had a nice season and seemed to mature nicely. Always known to have great stuff, the right-hander finally found some command to go along with it.
Hellickson wasn't able to get the big out when he needed to in 2013, which had a lot to do with his ERA swelling almost two runs from '12. By the end of the season, he seemed to have a tired arm.
Bullpen: Closing out games has been a duty reserved for Rodney the past two seasons. And though he was not as steady as he was in 2012, he still managed to have a solid year. But he enters the offseason as a free agent, which means there's a good chance that he will go elsewhere, despite the fact he likes playing for the Rays and manager Joe Maddon.
If Rodney indeed goes elsewhere, the Rays will have to either sign someone from the outside or find a closer from within the organization. Internal candidates include Joel Peralta and McGee, though they might use a bullpen by committee. There's also a chance that the Rays could resurrect the career of Juan Carlos Oviedo, who closed for the Marlins under the name of Leo Nunez and should be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery to his right elbow.
Others expected to be in the setup mix are Brandon Gomes, Wright and Ramos.
Catcher: Molina is a free agent. If the veteran does not return, the Rays will have Lobaton, who split duties with Molina in 2013, and Gimenez, who spent most of 2013 at Triple-A Durham.
There does not appear to be any serious internal candidates at this juncture, as the catching depth at the upper levels of the organization is a little thin. Lobaton did make great strides offensively in 2013.
First base: Loney is a free agent, so there's no guaranteeing that he will be back in 2014, even though there's some question as to how much a potential suitor would be willing to give up to sign a free-agent first baseman that hit 13 home runs in '13.
The Rays like what Loney gives them -- quality defense and solid at-bats -- so there's a chance he could be re-signed.
Second base: Due to the arrival of Myers, Ben Zobrist settled in at second base in 2013, rather than flipping back and forth between the two positions. Look for Zobrist to return to second in '14, once again giving the team Gold Glove defense along with solid offense.
Shortstop: Yunel Escobar brought to the Rays his reputation as a problem player, but he fit in well after Tampa Bay acquired him from the Marlins during Winter Meetings. He brought athleticism to the position unseen in the past. It would be a surprise if the Rays did not exercise his $5 million option for 2014.
Third base: Longoria had another solid season, and he played in 160 games after playing in just 74 in 2012 due to a hamstring problem. He remains the unquestioned leader of the team as well as the best player.
Outfield: Desmond Jennings will again be in center field next season, but the rest of the outfield seems to be up for grabs. Several questions surround the makeup of next year's outfield considering the number of left-handed bats the Rays have on their roster heading into the offseason, including: David DeJesus, Fuld, Joyce and Johnson.
Obviously, Fuld fits the bill as the Rays' fourth outfielder, based on the fact he can play late-inning defense, pinch-run, pinch-hit and he's affordable. Meanwhile, Joyce is arbitration-eligible after making $2.45 million in 2013, Johnson is a free agent, and the Rays hold a $6.5 million option for DeJesus' services in 2014. So they will need to make a decision about their direction for next year. Not too far away, the Rays have prospects Kevin Kiermaier -- who is well-regarded, particularly for his defense -- and Brandon Guyer.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.