After finishing with the worst record in the American League East at 68-94 in 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays won 12 more games in 2017.
Manager Kevin Cash‘s team finished two games short of the .500 mark at 80-82, good for third place in the AL East behind the division champion Boston Red Sox (93-69) and the second place New York Yankees.
Rays President of Baseball Operations Matthew Silverman made a handful of splashes at the trade deadline. At the time, an AL Wild Card spot was well within reach and pursuing a spot in the playoffs became the priority.
Silverman acquired first baseman Lucas Duda from the New York Mets, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from the Miami Marlins, right-handed reliever Steve Cishek from the Seattle Mariners, left-handed reliever Dan Jennings from the Chicago White Sox, right-handed reliever Sergio Romo from the Los Angeles Dodgers and right-hander Tobias Myers from the Baltimore Orioles.
Now, general manager Eric Nieander is in charge of baseball operations with Silverman going to the business side.
Many thought that might have been enough to put the Rays over the hump. But the Rays went 33-39 in the second half, including 13-15 in August and 12-14 in September.
Many of the players the Rays’ front office acquired at the deadline will leave in free agency and Tampa lost a number of talented players, most notably infielder Tim Beckham who hit .306 in Baltimore after hitting .259 as a Ray, and outfielder Braxton Lee who shined during the Arizona Fall League.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg will undoubtedly have to cut payroll after the team finished with the worst average per game attendance in the majors (15,670). When the Rays move into a new stadium, that should help increase the coffers but in order to contend in 2018, this small-market franchise will have to get creative.
Bare in mind, a lot is predicated on what direction Nieander decides to take the Rays in. If he chooses to do a full on rebuild and trade Chris Archer, then do not expect Evan Longoria to remain. But with a new stadium coming, ways to cut costs now and a team that can contend, this list is predicated on the Rays making trades to cut payroll while also creatively adding and keeping core pieces at the same time to contend in 2018.
Here is what the Rays offseason wishlist could look like.
1. Keep Alex Colome + Add other Relievers
With Tommy Hunter, Romo and Cishek all expected to depart, the Rays need to keep Colome.
Not only did the 28-year-old Colome save a major-league best 47 games last season but not trading him would create a sense of stability in a Rays bullpen that already will experience turnover.
The right-hander is one of 13 Tampa Bay players eligible for salary arbitration, but MLB Trade Rumors only projected Colome to earn $5.5 million. The Rays could trade some of their more expensive players to afford Colome.
Colome’s 3.37 FIP in 2017 is high for a closer and was much higher than his 2.92 FIP in 2016, but Colome’s job is to save games and he was the most effective at doing that last season.
The Rays will have to add relievers and there are a number of low cost options.
2. Trade Jake Odorizzi
If the Rays are going to keep Colome, they have to trade a couple of their expensive players to bring the team’s payroll down in order relevant now and in the future.
Jake Odorizzi is the perfect candidate to get traded. After making $4.1 million in 2017, the 27-year-old Odorizzi is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $6.5 million.
Odorizzi certainly did not earn a salary increase with his performance last season. He pitched fewer innings and made fewer starts compared to 2016 and his 5.43 FIP will not get it done. In addition after surrendering 28 home runs in 2016, he gave up 30 long balls last season.
3. Trade Corey Dickerson
Dickerson did hit 27 home runs with 62 runs batted in, his OPS+ was 14 points higher in 2017 compared to 2016 and he hit for a higher average (.282 compared to .245) and got on base more (.325 compared to .293).
But those overall numbers are deceiving. His production took a nose dive in the second half, a time when the Rays needed his bat the most.
After hitting .312 with 17 home runs and 42 runs batted in during the first half, Dickerson hit only .241 with 10 HR and 20 RBI in the second half and his OPS dropped 213 points.
MLBTR projects Dickerson to make $6.4 million in 2017, but after a sour last few months, it is time to trade or non-tender the 28-year-old.
4. Trade Brad Miller
Miller is another member of the Rays arbitration class.
The 28-year-old Miller is projected my MLBTR to make $4.4 million in 2018, but he barely turned in a replacement level season.
Miller posted a 0.6 WAR to go along with a pedestrian 84 OPS+ in 2017. He did undergo core muscle surgery, which could explain the change between a very productive 2016 season and his output in 2017.
But that might not be enough to justify paying him a hefty sum. Miller is a versitale player that could easily bounce back next season.
But the front office should instead pay a little under $1 million more to keep Hechavarria and pair him with Matt Duffy to complete the middle of the Rays’ infield.
5. Find a first baseman
Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda are both free agents and likely will not be back in Tampa Bay.
Duda only hit .175 in 52 games for the Rays after being traded to Tampa Bay from the New York Mets, but did hit 13 home runs.
Morrison was probably the Mariners most productive bat. He hit 38 home runs and drove in 85, yet both will likely be paid more than the Rays can afford.
That means the Rays need to add a first baseman in free agency. With prospect Jake Bauers almost ready, finding a right-handed hitter to complement him would work perfectly. Both Morrison and Duda are left-handed, so pairing Bauers with a right-handed hitting veteran could provide more balance at the position and it could give Bauers someone to learn from.
Of all the free agent first baseman, 36-year-old veteran Mike Napoli is the most logical option. He hit 29 home runs for the Texas Rangers last season, would not command a lot of money and is know for his leadership abilities.