Rays ready to shop at Winter Meetings
With young nucleus at big-league level, club will be cautious
ST. PETERSBURG -- The comfort level for the Devil Rays' second-year regime is much improved heading into its Winter Meetings encore.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said the Rays feel much more prepared based on having experienced last year's meetings, knowing the players in the organization better, and the staff having had the experience of working together.
The four-day meetings begin Monday in Orlando, Fla., a short car trip for the Rays from the team's offices at Tropicana Field.
"Obviously, the Winter Meetings is a busy time, and if we didn't have any conversations leading up to it, it would be very overwhelming," Friedman said. "But the preparation that's gone into the meetings in terms of talking to agents about free agents and other teams, we feel very prepared. We feel like we've got kind of our prep list in order on how to improve the team."
Tops on the Rays' list for improving the team is shoring up its volatile bullpen.
"There are guys we've reached out to and guys who we're targeting [for bullpen help]," Friedman said. "Unfortunately, all 29 teams are also looking for pitching. So, in a very competitive market, we're going to be as aggressive as we can be in moves that we feel improve our bullpen and or our rotation. And also, the trade market may present an opportunity on that front as well."
In 2005, the Devil Rays were active in many trade talks involving veterans Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson and Julio Lugo. Though all of the group would be shipped elsewhere during the course of the 2006 season, none were traded at the Winter Meetings. Only right-hander Dewon Brazelton, a former first-round draft choice who had been a disappointment, was traded to San Diego for third baseman Sean Burroughs, another first-round pick who had been equally as disappointing to the Padres. Neither player panned out in 2006.
Because the Rays have depth in their outfield with the likes of four potential five-tool players in Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes, they could trade an outfielder to procure the needed pitching help.
"Different teams are focusing on different players," Friedman said. "We've laid out some of the areas we're trying to focus on in conversations that [senior vice president of baseball operations] Gerry [Hunsicker] and myself have had, and we're focused on those areas to the extent that we can address them and we're going to be aggressive in doing so."
Several high-priced free-agency deals already have been struck. Friedman addressed how he perceived the way the market has gone affecting the Rays' thinking as far as free agents vs. trades.
"I think we're a little more insulated from that than other teams in that that's not our model to compete," Friedman said. "And so we're not as affected by the effects on [Alfonso] Soriano's contract, what it had on Carlos Lee. We feel very comfortable with the young players we have and what they're making. ... For us, it's production levels. If we feel like a certain free agent at his production level will make us better, we'll move. But with these types of deals we haven't felt that way."
"We're not going to be able to build through free agency -- it's very evident," Friedman said. "Our resources are more limited than other teams. That's a fact of life. Our margin for error is smaller. That being said, payrolls don't decide the standings."
Friedman said the Rays plan to be "opportunistic" during the meetings.
"If we feel like there's a move that makes us better, I think we're extremely prepared with the knowledge of our scouts and internally that the move will make us better. We will not be afraid to make that move," Friedman said.
He added that the organization feels as though it's in a win-win situation at these Winter Meetings.
"Because if we come back on Thursday with a different roster, we're going to feel extremely confident that we've made our team better," Friedman said. "If we come back with the same roster, we're going to feel like we couldn't have made our team better in those four days, and that that was the right course of action."
Whatever the case, the Rays will exit the Winter Meetings with a better idea of just who they'll be counting on when they try to compete in the tough American League East.
"I think we've made a lot of strides [since 2005], and some of it was kind of under the surface that I think will start to manifest itself this year and in future years," said Friedman, citing the depth created throughout the system during the 2006 season. "The young nucleus we have at the Major League level, I think, is second to none. As players continue to develop and we continue to identify the guys who we're building around and what areas we need to supplement, we're much further along today than we were a year ago."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.