ST. PETERSBURG -- Based on the fact the Rays entered the offseason facing a payroll reduction, the team's front office will have to be flexible as far as its participation in this season's Hot Stove market.
So when the Rays arrive at the annual Winter Meetings next week, don't expect a lot of action. Any moves the team makes will likely go down to the end of the offseason once it sees how the market shakes out. While Tampa Bay will entertain many offers and thoughts of free-agent signings, its situation says the American League East champions won't be too busy at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
"There is such a spotlight on the Winter Meetings, and every team hopes to leave having made moves to improve their club," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "That said, our focus there won't change from what it has been since the offseason began. We'll be as aggressive as we can in adding more young talent to our core and stay opportunistic as we look for value in every segment of the market."
Even the trade market does not look like it will be an avenue the Rays will be traveling during the Winter Meetings.
Several rumors involving Rays players have circulated, such as trading center fielder B.J. Upton, shortstop Jason Bartlett and right-handers James Shields and Matt Garza.
However, all of those prospects seem remote given the team's situation.
Upton remains reasonably priced, even though he'll likely get a pay bump from his $3 million salary last season. The Rays have come to terms with the fact that they will lose All-Star left fielder Carl Crawford, so keeping Upton maintains stability in the outfield.
The same holds true for Bartlett, who dipped offensively in 2010 after a solid '09 campaign. Despite the fact he made $4 million last year -- and will likely go higher in 2011 -- and the fact Reid Brignac looks Major League ready to assume the shortstop position, Bartlett gives the team a constant during a transition period.
Garza made $3.35 million in 2010 and Shields made $2.5 million. Garza is arbitration-eligible and should make more in '11, while Shields is under contract to make $4.25 million next season. Yes, Jeremy Hellickson is pushing for a spot in the rotation, but starting pitching is the Rays' most coveted asset. They have been fortunate over the past few years not to have any major injuries to their starting rotation. That is subject to change in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, the strongest group of pitching replacements is in the lower levels of the club's farm system. So for now, it will likely hold on to all of its starters.
Of course, the Rays have always held the philosophy that they will listen to any offer about any player, so trading anybody certainly is a possibility, just not a likely one.
The bullpen will be the biggest question mark for the team and the area that must be addressed with a sense of urgency during the Hot Stove season.
Over the past three years, the team has managed to cobble together a quality reliever here and there, putting the pieces in place for last season's bullpen that proved to be one of the best in baseball. Now the Rays are faced with wholesale changes and must piece together a quality 'pen all in one offseason, which is no easy task. J.P. Howell's return from left shoulder surgery obviously will help, but he won't be rushed, so don't look for him to be in the bullpen at the beginning of the season. Jake McGee will also be looked upon to become a contributor in the bullpen, where he showed well at the end of the 2010 season.
"We face a great challenge in putting together our 2011 bullpen; it's not often that virtually an entire 'pen hits free agency at the same time," Friedman said. "But with that uncertainty comes upside. We'll be able to put some new faces in a position to succeed, especially pitching in front of a defense like ours, and we expect that a couple will emerge from the pack and take advantage of the opportunity."
Money is an issue but maybe not as big a factor it's made out to be. Based on what principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said, it's safe to assume that the payroll will be reduced from 2010's $72 million to somewhere in the neighborhood of the mid-$40-million range.
Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Pat Burrell and Carlos Pena made a combined $36.5 million in 2010. None of that group should be back, which basically cuts the payroll in half, leaving a little bit of wiggle room.
Look for the Rays to find some bargain-priced free agents to compete for bullpen jobs, left field and first base. The team still has a solid nucleus, built on speed, defense and solid starting pitching. Most teams would love to begin rebuilding their team with what Tampa Bay has in place. How well it augments what it has should determine if the Rays make a repeat trip to the postseason.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.