Most of the issues facing the Rays at the start of the offseason involved bolstering a bullpen that finished the 2007 season strong, but it was the team's weakest link throughout much of the year. The Rays took a major step toward doing just that on Friday, signing veteran closer Troy Percival to a two-year deal.
Percival will team up with last season's closer, Al Reyes, at the back end of the bullpen, and it will go a long way toward achieving manager Joe Maddon's goal of having four relievers that he can use in the late innings of a tight game. The Rays already have picked up Reyes' $2.3 million option for 2008, so knowing that he will be back gives the bullpen a foundation. Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Scott Dohmann and Gary Glover will also factor into the mix. In addition, Juan Salas is an emerging talent. So the Rays will not be starting from scratch.
And Friedman said he'll be searching for even more bullpen help in Nashville.
"I think we've made tremendous strides from where we were last year," Friedman said. "That said, I'm not sure we're ever going to get to a point where we're content. To the extent where we can further upgrade the bullpen, we will."
The Rays solved their shortstop problem by acquiring Jason Bartlett in the deal that also landed them starting pitcher Matt Garza, and, in doing so, bought prospect Reid Brignac more time to season in the Minors until he's ready for big league action. Bartlett should provide stability to a position that was once in flux.
That leaves only one major question mark in the field -- at catcher. Dioner Navarro will return to the position, and though he showed promise in the second half, finding a veteran receiver to pace him and teach him the ropes would be a nice situation.
The Rays will enter the 2008 season with a quality trio of Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Garza leading the rotation. Edwin Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel will fight for the other two spots against the likes of Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot and, possibly, David Price, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. However, the starting staff is virtually composed of youngsters, making attractive the idea of acquiring a veteran arm who could add experience to the rotation.
Rays management is not opposed to prudent spending in the free-agent market, but more realistic is the idea of making a trade to shore up the team in the above-mentioned areas, and young prospects would be the collateral used to procure said talent. Given the fact that the Rays finished last in the American League East in 2007, they don't consider too many players on their roster untouchable.
"It would be irresponsible of us not to listen to anything that might make us better," Friedman said. "But we have a core of key players we're very excited about, and that we think are going to be largely responsible for our future success."
For Friedman and the regime that took over the Rays after the 2005 season, these upcoming Winter Meetings will be the third one on their watch.
"Each Winter Meetings presents new challenges, and you always learn something from them," Friedman said. "I'd say that overall, with one more year under our belts, we're even better prepared than we have been and better able to anticipate what opportunities may be out there."
One thing Friedman has learned is there should be no pressure to make something happen at the Meetings.
"We're very determined to go into 2008 with as strong a team as possible, but we don't feel pressured to make a deal in Nashville specifically," Friedman said. "There's plenty of winter left, and we'd rather take more time to make the right move than to do something at the Meetings just for the sake of headlines."