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Rays have decisions to make heading into 2015

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Rays have decisions to make heading into 2015

Pitching staff is solid, but Zobrist could be trade candidate with payroll cut expected.

ST. PETERSBURG — Heading into the 2015 season, the Rays will need a healthy dose of temperance rather than overreacting to what happened in 2014, a year in which the team appeared so much better than it performed. But some tough decisions must be made if the club wants to avoid a repeat of 2014.

Then again, with so much having changed between the end of the Rays’ season and the final game of the World Series, 2015 will be unlike any season in recent Tampa Bay history.

After a few tumultuous weeks, Andrew Friedman is no longer atop the club’s baseball operations department, and Joe Maddon no longer resides in the manager’s office.

Friedman is running the Dodgers. Maddon opted out of his contract. The task of putting together the 2015 Rays, starting with hiring a new manager, now falls on president of baseball operations Matt Silverman.

“My job and my priority is to continue the great work that we’ve done and continue with the challenge that we face every year of defying the odds,” Silverman said. “Our guys, they thrive on that challenge. It drives us.”

Unlike this season, when Tampa Bay brought back the bulk of its 2013 roster, the club will need to carefully scrutinize each position. In some cases, contracts might need to be eaten.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has already noted that the payroll will likely be headed down, but not necessarily slashed.

“It’s clearly going to be lower,” Sternberg said. “This year was an enormous aberration. Look, having said that, if the greatest thing since sliced bread shows up and it costs us money, anything is possible. We never say no to anything, but the default is clearly going to be lower.

“Our two highest payrolls have been the years we stepped it up, 2009 and 2014, and those are the only two years we haven’t played significant September baseball.”

The 2009 Opening Day payroll was $63.3 million, up from $43.7 million in ’08. And this year, the Rays opened the season at $76.8 million, up from $61.9 million.

Paring the payroll will be a lot easier without having to worry about paying David Price, who was traded to the Tigers at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Price made $14 million in 2014 and could earn considerably more than that via arbitration.

One certainty is that Tampa Bay will have the following group of solid starters: Alex CobbChris ArcherDrew SmylyJeremy HellicksonJake Odorizzi, Nate Karns and Alex Colome. And Matt Moore should be healed and ready to return from Tommy John surgery by early June at the latest.

Though the group of starters has changed, it has not changed dramatically, and the group remains a tight-knit unit despite losing its leader, Price.

“It can be difficult when things change and the environment changes around you and new guys come in,” Cobb said. “Since I’ve been here, there’s been guys coming and going, and for the most part, the group has stayed strong together and developed that friendship and that winning attitude on and off the field where guys are rooting for each other.

“We’ll continue to grow closer as a group. This offseason, we already have plans of working out together, maybe not the whole time, but parts of the year. Just the overall strength in that group will go a long way in us pulling for each other.”

The starting rotation looks strong heading into next season, as does the bullpen. While Grant Balfour struggled as the team’s closer before losing the job and Joel Peralta showed decline in the setup role, Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger stepped in to play significant roles at the end of the game. They have a lot of depth in the bullpen with several young relievers having stepped up in 2014.

What happens with Ben Zobrist will be interesting to monitor. The Rays have a club option to pay him $7.5 million for 2015 or to buy him out for $500,000. Zobrist is hardly at the end of his rope, so not renewing him would be totally unexpected. What happens after that will be the interesting part.

Given the fact that Sternberg has said that Tampa Bay will reduce the payroll, the decision on how to proceed with Zobrist will be one of the meatier decisions made.

A lot of teams covet Zobrist. He’s not your standard utility player, rather a starting position player who plays several positions well — including shortstop, second base and the outfield. Trading Zobrist would not be difficult, and it’s likely the return could be significant.

Much of how the Rays go forward could depend on how they feel about Nick Franklin as they head into the offseason.

Franklin came to the Rays from the Mariners in the three-team deal that sent Price to the Tigers. He’s a switch-hitter with some pop in his bat, and he can play second and short. Tampa Bay’s front-office members are on record as being more enamored with him as a second baseman and what he can do hitting against right-handed pitching. If Zobrist is traded, it’s easy to see a Logan Forsythe-Franklin platoon at second. That move would save the team $6 million right away.

Then again, Zobrist is one of the team’s best and most popular players. But do the Rays want to tie up almost $20 million of their payroll for Evan Longoria($11 million in 2015) and Zobrist?

It’s likely the Rays will take a wait-and-see approach. They have other contracts they are married to for 2015 that don’t look as good as they did heading in ’14. Balfour heads that list. He entered the ’14 season earmarked to be the team’s closer and lost the job through his performance. But Tampa Bay is on the hook to pay him $7 million in ’15. Catcher Jose Molina will make $2.75 million and outfielder David DeJesus will make $5 million, which is a lot to pay for an outfielder given the other outfielders in the stable. If the Rays can’t unload one or two of those contracts, trading Zobrist could be the only solution.

Stay tuned.

Again, the nice part for Rays fans is the fact the pitching is in place. On top of that, the American League East isn’t as strong as it’s been in seasons past. Thus, with the 2014 season barely in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to see Tampa Bay as a contending team in ’15.

Arbitration-eligible: OF Matt Joyce, INF/OF Sean Rodriguez, OF Desmond Jennings, INF Forsythe, RHP Hellickson, LHP Cesar Ramos, LHP Smyly, RHP Cobb, LHP McGee.

Free agents: None.

Rotation: Cobb will pitch in the top spot, and underneath him are a host of quality arms that make the Rays’ rotation look talented and deep. If the 2015 season began tomorrow, Cobb would be followed in some order by Hellickson, Archer, Smyly and Odorizzi. Karns and Colome will push the competition and Moore is expected back from Tommy John surgery by late May/early June. If there is one starter whose status might be in question, it’s Hellickson, who made $3.625 million in 2014 and is arbitration-eligible. So Tampa Bay might consider trading the right-hander. Then again, the Rays are not prone to trade starting pitching until later in their contractual advancement.

Bullpen: McGee will head into the offseason as the incumbent closer, even though he was never formally anointed as such during the 2014 season. But the left-hander was overpowering in ’14 and truly a lockdown closer-type reliever. The only other sure thing for next season is that Boxberger will again be the setup guy, a job he earned this season. The rest of the bullpen has many qualified arms with roles yet to be determined.

Catcher: The Rays would like to see Ryan Hanigan log a healthy season in 2015. After coming to Tampa Bay in a trade prior to the 2014 season, Hanigan had two lengthy stints on the disabled list. In addition to Hanigan, Molina is signed for another season. If for some reason Molina or Hanigan are not ready to go, Curt Casali gained some Major League experience in 2014, and the Rays like the way he catches a game.

First base: James Loney is the personification of the Rays’ ideal player. He’s smart, has quality at-bats and plays Gold Glove-type defense. While he will get the bulk of the starts at first, there’s some question about who will be his backup. Rodriguez played a lot of first base this season, but there’s reason to doubt that Tampa Bay will bring Rodriguez back at the salary he’s likely to make.

Second base: Zobrist is earmarked as the starter. Of course, Zobrist also plays outfield and shortstop — and there are questions whether the Rays will move him prior to 2015. If indeed Zobrist is no longer with the team — and even if he is — there’s reason to believe that Franklin, who is a switch-hitter who hits better from the left side, and Forsythe, a right-handed hitter, could share the position.

Shortstop: Yunel Escobar will return at shortstop. Though he did not have as good of a season in 2014 as he did in ’13, he’s still an everyday shortstop. Franklin can back him up, as can Zobrist.

Third base: Longoria remains the face of the team and will again have that status next season. Because he remained healthy all year in 2014, some were surprised that he had a down year offensively and defensively. Given Longoria’s talents and drive, don’t be surprised to see a huge rebound.

Outfield: What the Rays do in the outfield might be the biggest puzzle, as the team heads into the offseason with the following candidates to play significant roles in 2015: Zobrist, Joyce, Jennings, DeJesus, Kevin KiermaierWil Myersand Brandon Guyer. And pushing from below is Mikie Mahtook, who had a good season at Triple-A Durham. Of the group, several have interesting contract situations. The club has a $7.5 million option for Zobrist, DeJesus will make $5 million, Jennings (who made $517,000 in 2014) is arbitration-eligible for the first time and Joyce (who made $3.7 million in 2014) is again arbitration-eligible. Try sorting that one out.

Designated hitter: Look for the Rays to once again use a DH-by-committee approach. Doing so allows the team to rest position players with a day away from playing the field, and it also conserves payroll while allowing the team to have another fielder on the roster and not a hitting-only player.

Source: Rays have decisions to make heading into 2015 by Bill Chastain

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