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November 23, 2010

GM for a Day

Tampa Bay Rays

by Christina Kahrl

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Another year and another near-miss for the Rays has to be taken as simultaneously typical yet frustrating. There's not a lot of reward to having a ready-now roster and winding up no better off the long-gone Moneyball teams in Oakland—left talking about crapshoots and short series and saying there's only so much you can do is all well and good, but how about a better shot at a pennant? The Yankees and Red Sox aren't in perfect situations as far as squeezing we here in Tampa Bay back out of the playoff picture, but even so, let's not take anything for granted. Instead, let's focus on dealing from areas of depth, and dial up our standards slightly higher by trying to win the whole thing without giving away the store.

Now that I've snuck into the Rays' front office with all the tip-toeing moxie of Speed and Tyrone, let's see what's really believable. The challenge is to fix up a talent-laden roster to create an even better shot right now to an already prospect-laden, promising future. Happily, because of the game's best collection of pitching talent, we have the best possible means for exchange to address a lineup that's missing big bats at first base, left field, and DH. We're also short-handed in the bullpen as far as established relievers, but that's probably the worst market segment to invest in, so I figure to be cautious when it comes to cash or entangling commitments on that score. Because the wider world needs pitching, while the market's not exactly replete with great options for our bat-hungry shopping list, we can expand beyond shopping for free agents, and treat the other 29 rosters as our potential market.

So, with Andy Friedman and Matt Silverman presumably both away for the day, and with my mission set at win now, I'll start off by accepting that I've already bollixed up the picture here by trading Adrian Gonzalez to Boston during my day leading the Pads. As perfect a solution as he might have been, though, the Pads might not be as hungry for pitching as another team with short-time free agents-to-be who add monster pop.

So my first bit of business is to call Milwaukee to ask after both Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks, to make an offer. My initial negotiating position would be to offer Matt Garza, Nick Barnese, and Fernando Perez to the Brewers for Fielder's last season before free agency.

Admittedly, that's expensive in terms of talent, but keep in mind that Garza is about to tip over into becoming heavily expensive himself, with three years of arbitration eligibility to look forward to, and I do have to accept that we'll have other expenses to deal with. It's easy to admit that I'd rather deal James Shields or Jeff Niemann to create space for Jeremy Hellickson in the rotation, but if I'm getting Fielder, I know I'm getting draft compensation to follow if Friedman and Silverman can't convince Scott Boras to keep the beefy leaf eater in town beyond 2011. With a .316 True Average last season, Fielder is only a little bit behind Gonzalez, and the fact that he'll be significantly more expensive to employ than A-Gonz since he's headed to arbitration and just made $10.5 million means in turn that it might take less in terms of total talent to acquire him.

By giving the Brewers a front-end rotation starter under club control for three seasons, plus a quality pitching prospect, and an alternative to the reliably disappointing Carlos Gomez in center, I figure I've made a decent first offer. No doubt, Melvin might quibble with the selection of Barnese, and ask for Alex Torres or Jake McGee instead, because they're closer to The Show. I'll keep talking, and see what happens, but as long as we're talking about just one pitching prospect beyond Garza, I'm willing to make this happen.

Of course, the question is whether the Rays' much-vaunted defense can afford Fielder's inability to live up to his name while he mans first. That's a relatively small problem, though, and one my Cleveland-esque predecessor/replacement won't have to lose too much sleep over as long as the DH slot is unmanned. Shopping for the best bat available isn't the end of the world, and with Desmond Jennings about to arrive, I may well be stocked in the outfield already, with B.J. Upton and the platoon of Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist flanking the organization's top prospect.

So, if I convince Melvin to bite, that's great, but if not, then I'll take another tack before hanging up by asking after Weeks. Here, the goal would be to do as we've already had to with Upton, and bump Weeks to the outfield in his last season before free agency, to see if he can blossom into the new Ron Gant. That said, Weeks isn't Fielder, especially given his record for struggle and injury, so in such a fall-back scenario Garza comes off the table, and Niemann's on it. Inevitably, that would mean Melvin insists on Torres or McGee or even Matt Moore, which is fine by me—we're good to go. If he demands Sean Rodriguez as well, offer to pay to send him a box of cannolis to boot, but agree. And maybe working something out long-term with Weeks' representation will be easier that securing a multi-year commitment from Fielder, another one of Boras' “special talents.”

At any rate, if I add Weeks to that outfield, the DH slot is set, because I can rotate the outfielders through it without surrendering any defense, and that leaves me shopping for something short-term at first base in a market overstocked with adequate first-base types. If we wind up with Weeks, pass along a recommendation to see who's left at the end of January—and how much money's left—and see if we can get Adam LaRoche on a one-plus-one deal or Nick Johnson for something hugely incentive-laden. If we get Nick the Stick, make sure to keep Dan Johnson around as... Johnson insurance. But if we get Fielder and want to live dangerously with the DH slot, why not see if Manny Ramirez or Johnny Damon will take a one-year or one-plus-one deal to take their best shots at putting a dent in the dreams of a former employer or two?

Now, you may wonder why I'm bigger on dealing Garza instead of Shields. Bluntly, I expect most teams won't want much to do with “Big Game” James because of his oft-demonstrated tateriffic tendencies. As I mentioned in my spin as the Padres' GM for a Day, if the Rays wanted Heath Bell—never mind A-Gonz—and dangled Shields to me, I'd be asking for additional considerations. Now that I'm in the opposite chair, while getting Bell would be nice, I can only swing so many big deals, and this roster's bigger need is high-impact bats.

Which brings me to my next big action item, addressing our bullpen issues right now—because presumably this is before December 2—by calling up Kenny Williams and offering Dioner Navarro to the White Sox for Bobby Jenks. The tough question here is which one of us might want something else thrown in, since we're exchanging a pair of performance flakes to address one another's right-now needs. Of course we'll both want Stacks O'Cash in this deal, but I figure I should be the stickler in asking for it, since Jenks is guaranteed to be the more expensive player in the deal. On the other hand, if the Sox insist on getting something extra, I'll mention young right-hander Wilking Rodriguez to see if that elicits an enthusiastic response, and then insist on a much bulkier version of Stacks to make that happen.

The Human Barrel, though, really? My thought here is that both Navarro and Jenks are arb-eligible and both on the cusp of being non-tendered on the Emperor's Day, especially since both seem likely to accept any offer. But with Jenks coming off $7.5 million last season, while Navarro took home $2.1 million, you're basically giving the Sox a chance to see if they can straighten Navarro out while making a salary dump and handing the closer's role to Matt Thornton, something they should want to do. For the Rays' purposes, maybe Jenks just needs a change of scenery, but his fastball and his strikeout rate both came back to his career-start big-time whiffery, and his rate for generating grounders came back to happier levels from those days as well. Add in his getting his homer rate back under control, and his 2010 wasn't quite the disaster some made it out to be. Giving Jenks a one-year spin before he's a free agent while getting rid of one of our wastes of a 40-man slot is a nice exchange of problems, and the Sox might like to cut costs in this manner, not least because they can't really count on Tyler Flowers to take A.J. Pierzynski's place in 2011.

Still, that's just one reliever, and that's just our designated save-generator. So next on the agenda, we re-sign Grant Balfour. True, he's fragile, but he's been an identifiable quality component for several seasons, and continuity's a good thing. And perhaps that fragility will keep his contract expectations modest. Add Balfour to a pen that we've added Jenks to, with J.P. Howell due back at some point, and we have a nice veteran crust while still leaving slots open for McGee or Torres to join Lance Cormier for middle-innings work. While we're at it, let's also scrape the gunk off Juan Cruz and see about recycling him with a split contract, pitying him his Royals experience, and giving him a chance to stick as the Rays' latest retreaded reliever success story.

One thing I'll no doubt ponder at length is dealing Upton. Various defensive metrics say different things about whether he's become a good center fielder, which is really the key consideration—if he can't, or worse yet, if trading partners think he can't, then he's not going to be worth a lot in exchange, especially after back-to-back disappointing seasons. It would mean we're trying to sell at a time when his value's down, and while it might seem a fool's errand to let it ride with two more arbitration spins to go, it's best to dangle him without having any big expectations you'll get value. It would be cute to offer the Snakes a straight-up swap of our Upton for Chris Young, absorbing Young's more expensive multi-year commitment to get his more readily accepted plus glove in center, but as with any Snake slugger, I'm a bit dubious about betting on his bat outside the now-Bobless BOB.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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