The MLB Winter Meetings are underway in Dallas, and the Hot Stove has been at a rolling boil. While the Rays are a notoriously quiet team, there are high expectations for their involvement in trades and signings this offseason. Tonight I will recap what the Rays have done so far, and follow up with some predictions for the entire American League East at the Winter Meetings mid-point, late Wednesday morning.
The Rays' most pressing needs this offseason were a catcher, a first baseman, a designated hitter, and a reliever (or two). While this may sound like a lot, this is far less pressure than last season after the free agent exodus in the bullpen. Before the meetings this week, the Rays already found a back up catcher an a young reliever in the Jose Molina signing and Josh Lueke trade, respectively. This was an extraordinary amount of action from the front office, as the Rays management has normally waited until January to make most of their acquisitions.
Two days into the Meetings, the Rays have only made minor moves. Four minor leaguers have invites to spring training as of this afternoon: 26 year old infielder Matt Mangini, who batted .336 in 58 games for the Mariners Triple-A team, struggling 26 year old starter Johnny Nunez of the White Sox organization, a resigning of pitcher Ricky Orta who is recovering well from injury, and 28 year old first-baseman Juan Miranda.
In my original draft of tomorrow's article, I predicted the Rays would chase down Miranda, but Andrew Friedman and co. beat me to the punch. The left handed prospect has had four stints in the majors between the Yankees and Diamondbacks, totaling 111 games. He has the potential to hit for a lot of power and gets on base almost 35% of his at-bats. His batting average hasn't caught up to his OBP, but some coaching and consistency could point him in the right direction. This minor league signing has the potential to blossom into a major league thumper and the feel of Casey Kotchman's contract last season, but realistically Miranda will replace the departed Dan Johnson on the roster at Triple-A Durham.
The Rays will still need to find a full time DH and first baseman.
Designated Hitters are often the last signings of the off season (other than arbitration candidates), so not much action is expected there. The Rays are still attached to Johnny Damon conversations, but could take a new route and pursue other power hitters like former Yankees World Series MVP Hideki Matsui. It was reported today that the Rays are making a serious run at Athletics outfielder Josh Willingham, who played his first year in the American League last season and smacked 29 homeruns. Many consider his defense below or at league average, so he's likely a DH target, but given many bidders the Rays will likely back down.
First base could be filled during the winter meetings, but that would likely come on the trade market - and for that to happen, the Rays will likely move one of their many pitchers. Eight pitchers are major league ready on the Rays roster: James Shields, David Price, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Alex Torres. Most teams are demanding Shields, but Tampa Bay has no desire to trade their ace. The Rays are likely to trade Davis or Niemann for a first base solution, maybe even this week, but timing is more dependent on the market.
Other obscure moves could be on the way, including the possibility that the Rays were the mystery team who bid on Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Considered the second best hitter n the Japanese leagues, we've been touting the potential move. The Rays have two shortstop prospects in the minors and two major league shortstops already on the starting roster, but a signing of Nakajima could give the Rays flexibility on the trade market to bolster trades for a first baseman and would upgrade the offense in an inexpensive way - granted the Rays were the only team to bid and that they bid low. The silent bid results will not be announced until tomorrow. Consider this move unlikely, but it's worth the speculation.
Continuing trade rumors focus of B.J. Upton, but given the Rays desire to upgrade their offense they would need to be significantly overwhelmed. The Nationals may continue to pester the Rays, but Upton looks to be ours. And as always, another reliever could be signed.
Check back later in the morning for a few more Rays predictions and a look at the rest of the AL East.
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