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Rays seeking pieces for their young core

Rays seeking pieces for their young core

ST. PETERSBURG -- While many have portrayed the Rays as a team that saw its window of opportunity close at the end of the 2010 season, that's simply not the case. What remains is a team built on solid starting pitching, speed and defense.

Based on the fact that they will lose a number of players to free agency during this Hot Stove season, Tampa Bay obviously will have some work to do to pick up the pieces to complement its nucleus of young, talented players.

If there's one thing Rays fans have grown accustomed to seeing during Andrew Friedman's regime as the team's executive vice president of baseball operations it has been shrewd acquisitions. Over the years, Friedman has acquired J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler and Randy Choate, proving that Friedman and his staff have a good eye for talent and a good feel for what the team needs.

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"We've been very aggressive, exploring every different segment of the market -- and will continue to do that," said Friedman during a luncheon on Wednesday at Tropicana Field. "I think we've had some conversations to date that could lead to something happening at [the Winter Meetings]. We'll go into it prepared, as we always do, and act aggressively if something opens up to us."

So don't be surprised to see Tampa Bay come out of the Winter Meetings with a key addition that nobody saw coming. Then again, the Rays are fond of pointing out that they feel no pressure to get anything done at the annual event since they conduct baseball operations throughout the year.

Once thing is for certain -- recent history suggests that whatever moves the Rays do make will be the right ones.

Club needs

Relief pitching: This had been an area of depth, but it now is an area full of question marks since the Rays have already lost Benoit to free agency, and they'll likely lose Soriano and others from last year's bullpen, which was one of the best in the American League. Based on where ownership wants to have the payroll in 2011, the club isn't likely to spend a lot of money patching up its holes. Jake McGee will likely be a big part of the 2011 bullpen. Left-hander Alex Torres could also bring some help, as could right-hander Cory Wade, whom the club signed to a Minor League contract with a Major League invite to Spring Training. Howell, who is coming back from left shoulder surgery, will eventually be a piece, but he'll likely open the season on the disabled list. So the AL East champs will be left looking to find veteran bargains to complement what it has, which Tampa Bay has done a good job of in the past.

Left fielder: Carl Crawford is not likely to be back with the Rays, which means the team will have to begin lining up the candidates to replace the best and most popular player in team history. Internally, Desmond Jennings and Justin Ruggiano should get a shot, but it's also likely Tampa Bay will look for some free-agent bargains to fill the slot for the possibility that Jennings or Ruggiano don't win the job. And look for the club to sign some experienced players to Minor League contracts with invites to Major League Spring Training.

First baseman: Carlos Pena is a free agent and leaves a big gap to fill in the departments of power, leadership and fielding. The Rays have not yet tipped their hand if they will try and re-sign Pena, who might be willing to take a one-year deal to re-establish his market value after a down year at the plate (.196 batting average). If Pena is not the team's first baseman, Dan Johnson could be given a look or it might put the versatile Ben Zobrist there, though that would limit some of the club's flexibility. Russ Canzler, who was signed to a Minor League deal with a Major League invitation to Spring Training, could also be a possibility. Other plans could include brining in a free agent or making a trade.

Who could be dangled on the trade market

Jason Bartlett: The 31-year-old is a winner, a quality shortstop and a clutch hitter -- all attributes that any team would love to have. The Rays could afford to trade Bartlett because Reid Brignac appears ready to take over. However, don't look for Tampa Bay to force a trade involving Bartlett, since it likes what he can do for the club, and keeping him will add stability to a changing clubhouse.

Kelly Shoppach: The backstop did not have a good season in 2010, as he hit just .196 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in 63 games. He will be in the second year of a two-year deal for $5.5 million, so it's likely the Rays will not be able to send him elsewhere unless they eat a big portion of his contract. In Shoppach's defense, he did come back from knee surgery for an injury that occurred early in the season, so there's hope he can rebound offensively.

Top prospects

RHP Jeremy Hellickson, McGee, Jennings, OF/IF Leslie Anderson, Ruggiano, OF/IF Elliot Johnson and C Nevin Ashley. Based on the fact the Rays build from within, they are unlikely to trade any of their top prospects.

Big contracts they might unload

Shoppach.

Arbitration-eligible

Bartlett, B.J. Upton, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, Dioner Navarro, Lance Cormier and Howell.

Non-tender candidate

Navarro

Payroll summation

The Rays' 2010 Opening Day payroll was $72.8 million, and the ownership has mandated that number be reduced in '11 -- with all indications pointing to a payroll of approximately $45 million. Pat Burrell, Crawford, Soriano and Pena accounted for $36 million of Tampa Bay's payroll in 2010, and all will likely be elsewhere in '11, which leaves some wiggle room for the coming season. Still, there's not much room for additions to the current roster.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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