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January 11, 2011

On the Beat

Contending and Rebuilding

by John Perrotto

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The budget-conscious Rays beat the financial odds in two of the last three seasons to overtake the big-spending Yankees and Red Sox and win the American League East. At first blush, it seems the Rays don't have much confidence of making three out of four.

They are slashing last year's team-record $75 million payroll down to the $50-55 million range and traded right-hander Matt Garza, one of their top starting pitchers and a player who figured to make $6 million in arbitration this winter, to the Cubs last weekend in an eight-player deal in which the Rays did not receive any players who figures to make an immediate impact when the upcoming season begins.

The trade comes after a winter in which left fielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena and closer Rafael Soriano have left as free agents, designated hitter Willy Aybar was non-tendered and shortstop Jason Bartlett was traded. However, the Rays insist they are not running up the proverbial white flag on 2011. They still feel they can win another division title.

"It's always going to be an uphill battle in the AL East," executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "We still have some spots to fill to round out our roster but we have a very talented core in place and a core that we think that with the added experience of winning another AL East title last year and what we're going to shoot to do to supplement around them, that we'll be in good position to defend our AL East crown."

Rays club president Matt Silverman said money "didn't drive" the Garza deal and the money will be reinvested in free agents or players acquired in trade. Friedman ideally would like to add two late-inning relievers, including one who could close, and two hitters to fill the holes at first base, left field and DH.

"Major-league payroll is always going to fluctuate, but the key is maintaining a talent level that allows us to compete with teams that can go out and spend more than $100 million on a single player," Silverman said. "So we need to be able to compete this year, and we need to be able to look out for the next several years and know that we're going to have the talent to compete in this division."

Friedman said it was not his intention to trade Garza or any of his other starting pitchers this offseason, though the presence of young right-hander Jeremy Hellickson gave the Rays six starters for five rotation spots as he will join left-hander David Price and James Shields, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. Should an injury occur in spring training, the Rays also have right-hander Andy Sonnanstine and rookie lefty Jake McGee to provide depth.

The Rays felt the trade gave them a chance to make a good farm system even better. Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein had four of the five players coming to the Rays ranked among the Cubs' top 12 prospects: right-hander Chris Archer (No. 3), shortstop Hak-Ju Lee (No. 5), outfielder Brandon Guyer (No. 11) and catcher Robinson Chirinos (No. 12).

"It's essential for us as we try to maintain success in an increasingly hostile economic climate within baseball," Friedman said.  "Depth is a luxury that small-market teams often cannot afford. We have to maximize our resources. Our success is never going to be linked to the free agents that we sign that we outbid all 29 other teams. It's going to depend on players like the ones we got in this trade who can play major roles on our 2011 and beyond teams."

---

For the second time in as many months, the Angels were rebuffed by a major free agent in an attempt to upgrade an offense that was ninth in the AL and 19th in the major leagues last season with an average of 4.20 runs a game.

This time, it was third baseman Adrian Beltre who turned down a five-year, $77 million offer from to take a five-year, $80 million deal from the AL West rival Rangers that could be worth $96 million over six years if a vesting option for 2016 kicks in. The rejection from Beltre came after Crawford turned down the Angels to sign a seven-year, $154 million contract with the Red Sox during the Winter Meetings.

"We pursued some opportunities that did not pan out but we will be a better club offensively," Angels general manager Tony Reagins said.

Manager Mike Scioscia also sounded a hopeful tune.

"There were some talented players who didn't come here but we'll be fine," he said.

The Angels are banking on a full season from first baseman Kendry Morales, who suffered a season-ending broken leg on May 29 last season. Morales had a .299 TAv and 3.8 WARP in 2009, his first full season as a regular. Scioscia also believes a big key to Angels' success in 2011 will be Maicer Izturis getting the majority of starts at third base and the leadoff spot of the batting order rafter having an injury-marred 2010 in which he had just 238 plate appearances and his TAv dropped to .258 from .278 the season before.

"His ability to get out there and play at least 100 games is going to be really big for us," Scioscia said.

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The Cubs aren't the only National League Central team to give up well-regarded young players to obtain starting pitching. In acquiring Zack Greinke from the Royals last month, the Brewers traded pitching prospects Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi along with two young major-leaguers in shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain less than two weeks after dealing second base prospect Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum.

The Brewers have not been timid in trading prospects even though they play in the smallest market in the major leagues. During the 2008 season, they dealt four minor-leaguers, including two who are now major-league starters in first baseman Matt LaPorta and left fielder Michael Brantley, to the Indians for left-hander CC Sabathia.

Sabathia helped the Brewers win the NL wild card that season and make their first post-season appearance in 26 years. The Brewers believes Greinke and Marcum can take them back to the playoffs in 2011, thus making it worth the risk of trading the young players.

"You can't operate your farm system separate from your major league club," assistant GM Gord Ash said. "There has to be a cooperative path between the two.  If your team is positioned to win now, which ours is, you have to take advantage of that."

---

There is more than a little irony that Pat Gillick and Roberto Alomar will enter the Hall of Fame in the same year, joining Bert Blyleven in Cooperstown for the induction ceremonies on July 24. Gillick, then the Blue Jays' GM, acquired Alomar in one of the biggest blockbuster trades of the last quarter century when he got the second baseman and Joe Carter from the Padres at the 1990 Winter Meetings for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez.

"It was a good trade for both clubs at that time and it was a trade that went down really fairly easily," Gillick said. "(Then-Padres GM) Joe McIlvaine and I were on the same wavelength. Joe was the GM of the Padres at that time, and there was a lot of bickering; in fact, I was trying to get another player in the deal. But we negotiated back and forth, and it was a good 'ol baseball trade. We needed a right-handed hitter and they wanted to make a move and get a left-handed hitter at first base in McGriff.  Looking back, that was one of the best trades from the standpoint that everybody came out a winner."

Gillick, though, was being gracious when he claimed both teams won.  The Blue Jays received 37.6 WARP from Alomar and Carter, 30.4 of which came from Alomar, while the Padres got 21.2 WARP from McGriff and Fernandez. Furthermore, Alomar and Carter helped the Blue Jays win back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993 while the Padres did not reach the Fall Classic until 1998 after McGriff and Fernandez were long gone from San Diego.

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

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