What questions must the Rays answer this offseason in order to improve?
If you judge seasons on a binary scale—success or failure—then 2012 is a failure. Any season in that the Rays fail to make the postseason nowadays is a failure. Especially with the added Wild Card, which so many of us took as a given. There are positives and negatives to take away from this season, just like with any and the goal this offseason remains the same as the goal every offseason: Get better. That means personnel changes, both additions and subtractions, and progression from younger players—ideally counterbalancing the regression from older players.
The one thing the Rays will have this offseason is options. Last winter, we entered knowing that first base, designated hitter, and catcher were the spots to watch for additions. It’s not as obvious this winter because the Rays have a number of decisions to make that could shift strengths and weaknesses. The shape of the offseason depends on how the Rays handle five players.
The question at hand is where the Rays will play Joyce moving forward. Joyce worked out at first base over the winter, just to give the Rays another dimension. It never came into play. That probably tells you all that you need to know about his aptitude at the position. But the Rays could revisit the idea, or go a step further and make Joyce the everyday designated hitter.
Moving Joyce to coincide with B.J. Upton’s departure means the Rays would have to fill two outfield spots. Covering one hole is easy enough, with in-house options like Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer, and perhaps Ben Francisco available. Filling the second spot might prove more tricky, though the Rays could pursue players from outside the organization. Melky Cabrera, for instance, is down on his luck after testing positive for a banned substance. If Cabrera were to seek out a pillow contract, the Rays might be able to accommodate him.
The problems with moving Joyce, to either first base or DH, are obvious. Pat Burrell’s failure showed that it might take a special breed to succeed at the DH position. Whether Joyce has the makeup to do it is undeterminable. While first base is the easiest position from an athletic sense, it does require a special skill set. Soft hands, good reactions, and headiness are in order, with things like a strong, accurate arm and left-handedness serving as bonus attributes. (Remember that having a good outfield arm is not the same thing as having a good infield arm.) Joyce is an okay defender in the corners, but it’s not entirely clear that he would succeed at first base.
Similar to the Joyce situation, whichever way the Rays decide to go with Zobrist will determine the fates of a few other Rays infielders. Credit Zobrist’s talent and professionalism for his ability to transition to shortstop in-season without missing a beat offensively. Whether the Rays are willing to tolerate Zobrist’s defense at the position, and whether the Rays think they can field a better unit with Zobrist roving between second base and the corner outfield is the question.
Marco Scutaro appeared to be an option, but his resurgence with the Giants may leave him outside of the Rays’ desired price range. The same applies to Stephen Drew, who may stay with Oakland anyhow. That might leave Yunel Escobar as the best target. The Rays were once interested in acquiring Escobar from the Braves but maturity issues, known then and since exacerbated by more poor choices, could cause the Rays to give pause. Veteran free-agent options like Alex Gonzalez, Ryan Theriot, or Maicer Izturis could also be in play; though each of those players carries warts of their own.
How the Rays go about filling shortstop will determine the future for in-house infielders like Sean Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts, as well as Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson.
The Rays hold a $1.5 million club option for 2013 on Molina, with the alternative being a $300 thousand buyout. Bringing Molina back as the backup seems like the best possible outcome. The opportunity cost, in such a case, would include exposing Jose Lobaton to waivers. Is that a potential loss worth worsening the active roster to prevent? Probably not.
Scott’s streaky season makes it hard to evaluate how he’ll play heading forward. At times, including the second half (in which he’s hit .289/.346/.515 entering Monday night), Scott has looked like his old self. At other times, he’s appeared to be near the end of the string. Scott failed to hit left-handers this season, and it could be a sign of things to come. Is paying a defender limited to first base or DH $6 million to hit righties too much? That would be less than the Rays paid Carlos Pena to do the same thing this season.
The possibility of trading David Price surfaced in a recent Buster Olney column. It’s hard to see that happening for a few reasons. Trading one of the league’s best pitchers is tough enough. Pulling the trigger while the pitcher has three years of cost control remaining is about impossible. Only a few teams can muster the packages necessary to make a reasonable offer, and it’s unclear how many, if any, of those teams would be willing to do it. For those reasons, and others, Shields seems like the starting pitcher most likely to go in a trade*. What the Rays get back will help fill in the blanks.
*Tangentially related: Jeff Niemann and Alex Torres had disappointing seasons for various reasons, and it’s worse than they appear because of the probable decline in trade value.