ST. PETERSBURG -- Free agency is never a hot topic for the Tampa Bay Rays. Until there is an upheaval of the present-day finances of the game, the Rays will forever be the team watching from the sidelines as the division-rival Yankees and Red Sox grab the headlines with their wining and dining of marquee free agents.
The organization, which reduced its payroll from $72 million in 2010 to $42 million in 2011 -- and still made the playoffs -- will likely pick up some fringe pieces for 2012 via free agency. But don't expect the Rays to go all-in on any of the available big-name free agents.
Not having to replace an entire bullpen -- which they had to do prior to this past season -- is one nice aspect for the Rays as they put together their 2012 club.
"I'm definitely going to get a lot more sleep this offseason," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "That was a daunting task. Of everything that happened last offseason, that was, by far, the thing that kept us up the most, consumed our thoughts the most.
"It's going to be nice to approach it in a little different way this offseason, with really looking for potentially one to two guys -- as opposed to looking for an entire bullpen."
Improving the offense will be the team's biggest challenge prior to next season. Finding a bat for the middle of the order to help out Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and B.J. Upton (if he is not traded, which seems to be the rumor heading into every Rays offseason) is a priority. However, it won't be addressed at all costs.
Friedman and Rays manager Joe Maddon have spoken volumes about the value of defense. Thus, they will not be willing to sacrifice much in the way of defense in order to bring the team more offense. And despite being well stocked in the starting-pitching department, the organization is not eager to part with any young arms, or the depth chart, in order to bring in offense.
Finding a free-agent slugger is a possibility, but the only way that option will apply to the Rays is if a free agent falls through the cracks and doesn't get the deal he desires. Often when such a scenario happens, a free agent will sign a one-year deal to try and boost his value, with the idea of heading elsewhere the following season.
On the bright side for the Rays, they are a young, homegrown team for the most part. They made the playoffs in 2011 -- a season most viewed as a bridge year for the club. Most of the players from the 2011 team should be back in '12, with another year of experience under their belts. And maturation often translates to improved performance.
"The one thing I'm confident about is we're going to have an extremely talented team -- the composition of which, how things are going to unfold, I'm not sure of yet," Friedman said. "But with the guys we have returning, with the areas we'll be looking to address, there's a lot of different ways for us to go. We relish that. It's something that allows us to be creative and something that, as we get into our offseason planning, we'll go through all those different things and present different things to [principal owner Stuart Sternberg]. But like in years past, it won't be a set number."
AREAS OF NEED
Catching: Kelly Shoppach turned out to be the team's best defensive receiver in 2011. Bringing him back in 2012 would cost the Rays $3.2 million, or they could buy him out (for $300,000) and sign him for a lower number, provided another team does not sign him. Given the status of catching at the Major League level, that's not a lock. If the Rays elect to not bring back Shoppach based on salary alone, the remaining candidates are John Jaso, Robinson Cherinos, and Jose Lobaton -- a group that did not distinguish itself in 2011, despite many opportunities. Trading for a catcher is always a possibility, but few catchers are available. Any backstop worth his shin guards is coveted by his respective organization.
First base: Casey Kotchman filled the role nicely in 2011, playing stellar defense and making great strides with his hitting after having an eye problem tended to during the offseason. However, Kotchman is a free agent. The St. Petersburg native made $750,000 in 2011 and should get a nice raise if he tests the free-agent waters. The Rays must decide whether a slick-fielding first baseman with minimal power is worth the extra salary bump. Perhaps he will give the Rays a hometown discount. If he does not return, this could be a position the Rays fill by signing a free agent, or perhaps by moving Zobrist to first. Russ Canzler, who was the MVP of the International League playing for Triple-A Durham, could be a long-shot candidate to earn some playing time at the position next season.
Designated hitter: Johnny Damon quickly evolved into the team's DH in 2012, after Manny Ramirez's abrupt retirement. The veteran proved to be one of the best DHs in the club's brief history. Damon has said he'd like to return, and the Rays have not said anything to suggest they are against bringing him back. Yet, the question remains about salary. Damon made $5.25 million in 2011, and Scott Boras is his agent. Would he accept less to remain close to his home in Orlando? If not, the Rays might venture into the free-agent market for a one-year signee or trade for a player to fill that role. A DH-by-committee approach might also be an option.
The Rays reduced their payroll by $30 million prior to the 2011 season. Based on the team's sagging attendance, it is far-fetched to believe the team will increase its payroll. On the other hand, a reduction may not come, either, based on Friedman's comments that the payroll is flexible. That belief is reinforced by the fact the Rays believe they have a chance to win the division with the team they have. If Damon is not brought back, that $5.25 million could be used for a free agent. If Upton or James Shields -- or both (Upton is expected to get a pay bump via arbitration and Shields will get a nearly $3 million pay raise if the Rays exercise their club option for him) -- are dealt, that would create more payroll flexibility. However, the Rays would then need to replace both.
"We operate without a set number," Friedman said. "There's going to be things that come up this winter. It's great for us in baseball operations because it allows us to be nimble."
Free agents: Damon, OF; Juan Cruz, RHP; Kotchman, 1B; Joel Peralta, RHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Upton, OF; J.P. Howell, LHP; Dan Johnson, 1B; Andy Sonnanstine, RHP; Jeff Niemann, RHP; Sean Rodriguez, IF; Matt Joyce, OF.
Club options: RHP Shields, $7 million ($2 million buyout); C Shoppach $3.2 million option ($300,000 buyout); RHP Kyle Farnsworth, $3.25 million ($650,000 buyout).
Non-tender possibilities: Sonnanstine and Johnson.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.