It was nice while it lasted right? What am I talking about? The ability of the Tampa Bay Rays to be competitive with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in what is known as the AL BEast division. This off-season the Rays will be saying good-bye to several players that have made them the contenders that they were for the past few seasons. The likes of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, possibly Jason Bartlett, and one of Matt Garza or James Shields will no longer be in Rays uniform for the 2011 season. These will create major holes on the team and its quite possible that the shoes of the departed my never be filled. Sorry Rays fans, the future does not look good.
If you think the Rays will be active in the free agent market, forget it. Word out of Tampa is that the payroll (which was $70+M this season) will be cut by $20-$30M to the $40-50M range for next season. It appears the Rays will be looking in-house to find replacements. Jeremy Hellickson needs a spot in the rotation, so financially speaking, it makes sense to move either Garza or Shields. Which of them will it be? Your guess is as good as mine. Shields is under an affordable contract, but has become less effective over the past couple of seasons (even if metrics say otherwise). Garza is heading into his arbitration years, so the cost of keeping him will be higher than Shields. However, Garza has been more effective for the Rays staff, so is it worth it to may pay him a few extra millions and trade away the underachieving Shields? I guess thats the for the Rays management to decide based on what they can get in return for either.
Jason Bartlett (arbitration eligible) is another candidate to be traded in an effort to cut costs. With Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez proving that they can handle the positions up the middle, this definitely makes sense. As for 1B, I don't know how they are gonna replace the middle of the order bat of Carlos Pena. Sure he K'd a lot and hit for a poor avg, but his defense was excellent and provided a lot of power in the middle of the Rays lineup. Will the in-house replacement be Ben Zobrist? Who is the real Ben Zobrist? After his horrible 2010 season, it really is difficult to expect a rebound to his 2009 form. I'm sure the Rays fans are hoping and praying though! Assuming Zobrist does indeed move to 1B full-time, it would leave the team with two vacant outfield positions to fill. Desmond Jennings is expected to take over one of the spots. Despite his sub-par 2010 season, I still think he has a bright future. Will he replace what Carl Crawford brought to the lineup? I don't think so. So who takes over the remaining OF spot? Rocco Baldelli, Brad Hawpe, Gabe Kapler are all free agents. That leaves Matt Joyce. I do believe he has potential to be a solid regular, but he definitely needs to find some consistency.
The Rays bullpen will also have a new look to it. The dynamic tandem of Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit will be searching for big paydays elsewhere. Jacob McGee can perhaps start off in the setup role and eventually become the closer. However, those are pretty significant expectations to place on the kid. Randy Choate, Grant Balfour, and Chad Qualls are all free agents. If they don't re-sign some of these arms, they will have several important roles to fill in their bullpen. Since cost-cutting is a priority, they can try to find some bargains on the free agent market, or find cheap alternatives within their own system. Either way, I think the bullpen is gonna be a major weakness for the Rays moving forward.
Bottom line is that the window for the Rays to be among the heavyweights in the division and contenders for the World Series is officially closed. It might be a long long time before the Rays even sniff 3rd place again in the AL East with the Blue Jays and Orioles on the rise. I really do feel bad for the passionate die-hard Rays fans out there. I feel like they have been teased the past few seasons and now will have to go back to the losing ways of the past. It truly is a sad story. I guess the light at the end of the tunnel is that the Rays can start accumulating a lot of high picks again and build for the future.