If you are one of the many traveling members of the Tampa Bay Rays front office in Las Vegas this week, can you pull off the swagger and the slight attitude of a pennant winner? After your team pulled off the almost impossible in 2008 of claiming the American League East and Pennant, let’s hope you can become as cocky and as vocal as the other counterparts in the AL East offices. At the MLB Winter Meetings at the elegant Bellagio, do you finally have people on your speedial that are the movers’ and the shakers’ in baseball? Again, we hope so. For years the Rays were the typhoid marys of the major leagues. No one gave you the respect, the ablity, or even the confidence to even park your car without hitting the cement pole. But now you have gained that initial push towards respectabilty and you can flaunt it with the big boys this year. Celebrate, let you inner rowdie come out and show the world the Rays are here for good and you better get used to it!
Now we all know that Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman has already been a busy guy this offseason, but does he get more looks and more calls now simply because of his upstart moves and slick manuvers in 2008. We hope so. And do the Rays even get odd calls now from veterans wanting to play here seeing the positive attitude and the termendous team concept in the clubhouse.We sure hope so too. According to some sources, for the first time in Rays history, people are actually calling the team asking about openings and chatting with team officials. Such a adventure would not have seemed possible a few seasons ago, but now are common place for the A L Pennant winner.
As the Rays continue to search for key ingredients to their 2009 pie, We have to believe that they are gearing up for are making another run at the World Series in 2009. Vegas currently have then at 16:1 to repeat the playoff senario and win it all this time. That is a huge improvement over the 150:1 shot that was posted before the 2008 season. So we as fans have to believe that the team is being constructed in 2009 to defeat and stay above the division, and not just stay up with the Sox and Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East in 2009. Wow, what a difference a little winning can do to your organization, and your Vegas odds for winning the World Series.
Their division has become a hot bed of activity in the last few years where the winner of the division is an odds on favorite to win it all. With that kind of mentality only growing and evolving in 2009, do the Rays have what it takes to not only defend the crown, but keep it safe all year long from their divsion foes? Or is the primary focus of this weeks meeting to gain avenues and portals into the upper working of the MLB to find the hidden gems like Eric Hinske and Willy Aybar again in 2009. The scouting department of the Rays never get enough credit for seeking, searching and finding guys like Andy Sonnanstine and Rhyne Hughes. That department might be the hidden reason for so many of the Rays advancements in the last year. Finding those diamonds in the rough seems to be a gift for the Rays scouting department.
The Rays primary focus in the Hot Stove season so far seems to be in formulating a trade or signing a free agent to improve the Rays potent offense and increase the stopping power of the bullpen. But will they be aggressive on their ”wants”, or sit back and remain low key and hope everyone picks off one-by-one the weaker guys before the Rays pounce on their guys. You would think that by this years Winter Meeting, Friedman would have the insights and the drive to go after the guys before even matching them up. This is proably the first Winter Meeting he has had time to venture outside his hotel room and actually communicate face-to-face with a large amount of people. Popularity and a gift for the craft can be a person’s greatest asset in this game of chance.
But again, Friedman’s focus might be on the free agent market totally and not even consider a trade of any type just yet in the off season. He might hold all his cards until January, then deal them out as he sees fit to the right suitors. Friedman has gone on record as saying he has less players to trade per se this year than in the past. This actually might be a smoke screen set up until the upper echelon of pitchers disappear, then he brings out the names like Hammel, Niemann, and maybe even Jackson or Sonnanstine to wet the interest of teams seeking young talent with upsides. The Rays have the leagues’ quota on young arms plus this year. But then, we have been stockpiling the guys knowing that this day would come some time, some way, to where we could just pick and choose our guys for the first time based on our standards and not the standards set forth by other teams or free agents.
Friedman has also been blunt to about his trading past and the team has been active heavily in the trade column than in free agents column. But starting in 2009, the team is actually taking a look at free agents and trades at a 50-50 percentage for the first time in franchise history. The Rays have finally built up enough clout and respect in the last year to entice free agents and make the Tampa Bay a perferred destination for veterans who still have alot in the tank.
As for the offense, the Rays are flexible with their plan for further improvements, whether it’s by acquiring a full-time right fielder or a power-hitting designated hitter. Their focus is firmly in improving their offensive numbers in 2009.
Clear holes are currently flashing in right-field and DH, but could they also get a value later in the Hot Stove season to spell a trade of a secure player right now in the Rays lineup. That question might be better answered around the mid-season mark when they will re-evaluate Carl Crawford and his $ 11.5 million dollar contract for 2010. In the comnig year or so the team will have to face the reality of losing a big name player because of the small market money coming into their coffers. Crawford and Kazmir might be the first 2 players that are within the system to be depatched out of the roster because of future salary or bonuses. And this will set a nasty trend for a few years until the next crop of young studs get established, then rebuilding will happen again and again.
Friedman is not sure how the current economy will affect baseball in Tampa Bay in 2009. But he does know that he is getting more and more calls from interested parties who want to talk about the team’s openings. Even though a recent presentation by the Tampa Bay Baseball committee showed that the area’s wealth is down considerably, and that the stadium’s even financial stability might be in play in 2009. Playing within the boundaries of a tight economic circle might be hard for a team fighting to regain it’s edge in 2009. With the general population near the stadium showing double digit unemplyment, it might be a rocky year to start off in 2009, then gradually get into a rhythm and rise upward near the summer months. This is just speculation, but might be a realistic senario for the team.
The conversations with other teams have been just as frequent as they’ve been in years past, but with both agents and teams, we’re seeing that there aren’t very many people who want to be aggressive and really force things ahead right now. Is it the financial conscience of the league, or just the agents and players feeling out the sagging system before demanding, or putting out their inflated numbers. Could we see a year of low ball figures to free agents with a vested interest or options, or will we have to wait about 2 years when the economic climate rebounds full force to see super high estimates and salary marks again in baseball.
Friedman showed a sense of humor when asked whether he expects activity to pick up during this years Winter Meetings. He does expect that trade and free agent signings to go wild if something happens early to dictate the market or something might flex and break trends within the league. But in the end, could we all be just playing the numbers and be left with what is left over on the tables and not get the desired players we need to succeed. The reality is that baseball, like gambling is a crap shoot and anything can happen……………even busting out on a good hand.