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Richard Justice

Rays must decide whether to shop excess pitchers

Justice: Rays face tough decision with excess pitching

Rays must decide whether to shop excess pitchers
The Tampa Bay Rays have the one thing every other team craves. They have it in bunches, too, perhaps more than they really need. They've got some serious needs, too, so what's the problem?

The Winter Meetings, which begin Monday in Nashville, Tenn., are perfect for solving this kind of issue. Once Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman mentions to other general managers that some of his pitching might be available, he could have them lined up outside his door.

Friedman admits to being in a listening mode. If the Kansas City Royals offer Eric Hosmer or Wil Myers, Friedman will be tempted to deal. In a perfect world, he'd prefer to hold onto his seven starters and fill his holes through free agency.

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That's what Friedman did a year ago, but his shopping list has grown: first base, catcher, designated hitter and one outfield spot.

Here's the dilemma. If Friedman holds onto his pitching, he surely will find free-agent bargains in January and perhaps even February. There might even be enough for him to put a competitive offense on the field.

If Friedman hits it right on every signing and if third baseman Evan Longoria stays healthy and if manager Joe Maddon has his usual magical touch at putting the right pieces in place, the Rays could end up back in the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons.

Here's the other part of Friedman's dilemma: When does a club have too much pitching? Is there ever enough?

Should Friedman dare touch a pitching staff that's the envy of every other in the game, one that led the Majors with a 3.19 ERA and set an American League record for strikeouts?

That 3.19 ERA was the lowest by an AL team in 22 years. And when Tampa Bay had Longoria healthy, the club had plenty of offense, almost five runs a game.

The Rays were 47-27 with Longoria in the lineup, and if he stays healthy, there's no reason to think they won't be good enough to win 95-100 games. Even though Tampa Bay was ripped apart by injuries in 2012, the club still won 90 games and missed the playoffs by just three games.

The Rays went to the playoffs in 2011 when they were ranked 11th in the AL in runs. They were just ninth in the AL in runs in 2008 when they went to the World Series and began a stretch of five seasons in which they've averaged 92 victories.

Along the way, they've established themselves as one of baseball's smartest, most efficient operations. They're in the bottom five in payroll almost every year, but they've found a better way to do things.

(In fairness, the 2010 playoff team was third in the AL in runs. They also had the AL's second-lowest ERA that season.)

In other words: pitching and defense.

What a concept.

Circumstances may compel Friedman to be more aggressive. For one thing, living without offense makes the road long.

Teams have to grind out games. Mistakes are magnified. As Andy Pettitte said in 2005 while pitching for the run-starved Astros, "It wears on you. You begin the game knowing if you allow a couple of runs in the first inning, you're probably not going to win."

(That run-starved Houston team rode pitching and defense right into the World Series, so there is that.)

Also, Friedman's ace, James Shields, is a year from free agency and is likely to command such a nice price on the open market that he'll be outside of what Tampa Bay can afford.

Yet as Friedman meets with executives to weigh how much he can add to his offense by surrendering someone like Shields or Jeremy Hellickson, he's sure to be wondering what would happen if the kept he band together for another run.

Can he mix and match the January free-agent market to win the AL East?

Even if Friedman trades both Shields and Hellickson, he'd still have a rotation of David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jeff Niemann. The Rays would look less formidable without the 404 innings and 347 strikeouts Shields and Hellickson produced, and their margin of error would be dramatically less.

For the past five seasons, they've pitched better than any other team in baseball, and even without offense, they've been to the playoffs three times and barely missed a fourth appearance.

Regardless, Friedman will be a popular man this week as general managers attempt to pry one of those arms from him. Take a number, boys.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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