Nucleus intact, '10 Rays eye playoff return

Nucleus intact, '10 Rays eye playoff return

Some fans felt as though the Rays had quit on the season when Scott Kazmir was dealt to the Angels on Aug. 28 for infielders Matt Sweeney and Sean Rodriguez and left-hander Alex Torres.

While the timing of the trade could have been better, what the deal did for the future of the club can't be disputed, as it puts Tampa Bay in a better position to compete for the American League East title in 2010.

Kazmir had been a popular player for the Rays during his five-year tenure with the team, but save for his final few starts with Tampa Bay, the left-hander had not pitched well for much of 2008 and '09. In addition, he was signed to a long-term deal that would pay him $8 million in 2010 and $12 million in '11.

Given the way Kazmir pitched over the past two seasons, that was a huge financial commitment for a team that doesn't have the luxury of getting sloppy with its payroll.

Knocking $8 million off the books for 2010 will allow the Rays to address other areas this offseason, which will help maintain their status as one of the top teams in the AL. There are legitimate reasons to believe Tampa Bay can again be in the hunt for the AL East title in 2010.

Returning to the team will be a nucleus of everyday players in Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena, who will help ignite the offense.

The starting rotation will again be strong, with James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis.

In the bullpen, the Rays will continue to have some nice pieces in Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, Randy Choate, Lance Cormier and Dan Wheeler.

So there is a good foundation to keep doing what Tampa Bay began when it won the AL East in 2008 and advanced to the World Series.

That's not to say there isn't some tweaking that needs to be done here and there -- certain areas need to be addressed.

Pat Burrell was a huge disappointment for the Rays in 2009. The veteran slugger did not pan out as the designated hitter in the middle of Tampa Bay's batting order, and the club is obligated to pay him $9 million for the 2010 season. It's unlikely the Rays can trade Burrell, so the only logical solutions are to hope he can rebound in 2010 or to release him. The latter of those solutions would seem to be the less prudent of the two.

Dioner Navarro took a step backward as the team's catcher, which could lead to the team addressing the position in the offseason.

Second base will bring an interesting scenario. The Rays aren't likely to exercise Akinori Iwamura's contract for 2010 at $4.25 million, which means the job will likely go to Zobrist, Reid Brignac or Sean Rodriguez.

What happens in right field should also bring some interesting discussion during the offseason. Will Tampa Bay keep Gabe Kapler and Gabe Gross, or will it put Zobrist in right field on an everyday basis?

Finally, the Rays will need to address their closer situation, or lack thereof, through a trade or a free-agent acquisition. Having a legitimate closer would move everyone's role in the bullpen down a notch, which would offer immediate improvement.

The Opening Day payroll was $63 million in 2009, and it's not expected to skyrocket much higher next season.

If the Rays make the right moves this offseason, the club can get back in the postseason mix. Here's where the roster stands as an interesting few months loom:

Contract issues
Free agents: Gabe Kapler, OF; Chad Bradford, RHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Dioner Navarro, C; Jason Bartlett, SS; Grant Balfour, RHP; Joe Nelson, RHP; Gabe Gross, OF; Lance Cormier, RHP; B.J. Upton, OF; J.P. Howell, LHP; Matt Garza, RHP; Shawn Riggans, C.
Player options: None.
Club options: Carl Crawford, OF, $10 million; Akinori Iwamura, 2B, $4.25 million; Brian Shouse, LHP, $1.9 million; Gregg Zaun, $2 million.
Non-tender possibilities: Gross, Balfour, Navarro.

Catchers
• Dioner Navarro, .218 BA, 8 HRs, 32 RBIs
• Gregg Zaun, .260 BA, 8 HRs, 27 RBIs
• Shawn Riggans, .143 BA, 1 HR, 1 RBI

The Rays' catching situation is a weak point. While Zaun's acquisition bolstered the depth at the position, he is not an everyday catcher. Meanwhile, Navarro couldn't duplicate his strong 2008 season.

First base
• Carlos Pena, .227 BA, 39 HRs, 100 RBIs
• Willy Aybar, .253 BA, 12 HRs, 41 RBIs

Pena is one of the best power hitters and slickest fielders in the Major Leagues. Aybar can hit, but his glove quickly gets exposed if he plays the position for more than a day or two.

Second base
• Akinori Iwamura, .290 BA, 1 HR, 22 RBIs
• Ben Zobrist, .297 BA, 27 HRs, 91 RBIs
• Reid Brignac, .278 BA, 1 HR, 6 RBIs

Iwamura isn't likely to be back with Tampa Bay given his contract situation, which leaves Zobrist or one of two rookies, Brignac or Rodriguez, as the everyday second baseman.

Shortstop
• Jason Bartlett, .320 BA, 14 HRs, 66 RBIs
• Ben Zobrist, .297 BA, 27 HRs, 91 RBIs
• Reid Brignac, .278 BA, 1 HR, 6 RBIs

Bartlett makes this position a team strength, and the club has nice depth in Brignac and Zobrist.

Third base
• Evan Longoria, .281 BA, 33 HRs, 113 RBIs
• Willy Aybar, .253 BA, 12 HRs, 41 RBIs

Longoria has established himself as one of the best players in baseball whether he's at-bat or in the field.

Outfield
• Carl Crawford, .305 BA, 15 HRs, 68 RBIs
• B.J. Upton, .241 BA, 11 HRs, 55 RBIs
• Ben Zobrist, .297 BA, 27 HRs, 91 RBIs
• Gabe Kapler, .239 BA, 8 HRs, 32 RBIs
• Gabe Gross, .227 BA, 6 HRs, 36 RBIs
• Matt Joyce, .188 BA, 3 HRs, 7 RBIs

Crawford and Upton are among the fastest outfielders in the game. The club must make a decision on the status of Gross and Kapler. If Zobrist doesn't start at second, he could be in right, or that position could go to Joyce.

Designated hitter
• Pat Burrell, .221 BA, 14 HRs, 64 RBIs
• Willy Aybar, .253 BA, 12 HRs, 41 RBIs

Given Burrell's down season in 2009, this is a weak spot in the Rays' lineup.

Rotation
• James Shields, 11-12, 4.14 ERA, 167 K's
• Matt Garza, 8-12, 3.95 ERA, 189 K's
• David Price, 10-7, 4.42 ERA, 102 K's
• Jeff Niemann, 13-6, 3.94 ERA, 125 K's
• Wade Davis, 2-2, 3.72 ERA, 36 K's
• Andy Sonnanstine, 6-9, 6.77 ERA, 60 K's

The rotation is a definite strength, given its youth and potential.

Bullpen
• J.P. Howell, 7-5, 2.84 ERA, 17 SV
• Dan Wheeler, 4-5, 3.28 ERA, 2 SV
• Grant Balfour, 5-4, 4.81 ERA, 4 SV
• Lance Cormier, 3-3, 3.26 ERA, 2 SV
• Randy Choate, 1-0, 3.47 ERA, 5 SV
• Andy Sonnanstine, 6-9, 6.77, 0 SV

The bullpen has some nice pieces, but it's in definite need of a closer.

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