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Friedman: Rays will seek flexibility in offseason

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:49 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

One of the reasons the Tampa Bay Rays didn't pick up the option on designated hitter Luke Scott last week was because it would set off a domino effect that their executive vice president of baseball Andrew Friedman is not quite ready to begin.

Or, at least not by locking in Scott – or anyone else – as the designated hitter this early in the offseason.

The key to restocking the Rays this winter, as it is every winter, is flexibility.

"We're going to maintain as much flexibility as possible," Friedman said.

In addition to limited funds, two keys to the Rays' offseason plans will be the pitchers they could include in a trade and Ben Zobrist.

It is widely assumed the Rays can dramatically improve the offense by trading either James Shields or David Price, who will make at least a combined $18 million in 2013. Yet Friedman maintains he can keep both pitchers and still improve the offense.

He also said he's not anxious to break up the best pitching staff in baseball.

Pitching and defense have been the priorities since Friedman took over after the 2005 season. Yet, Friedman said that isn't a hard and fast formula.

"Our strengths and weaknesses aren't necessarily a philosophical mindset as much as it is optimizing the guys that we have with the depth that we have and trying to put together the best team that we can," he said.

Still, Friedman won't discount the importance of pitching.

"I think pitching is something that is a bellwether," he said. "There is no era in baseball where you could ever win without pitching."

Zobrist factors into the offseason moves because his ability to play second base, the outfield and now shortstop gives the team more options on defense.

As usual, the Rays are looking for help in the middle of the infield. Unlike past years, Zobrist is now a viable option at shortstop, meaning Friedman and his staff can concentrate their efforts on landing a full-time second baseman. Or, they can continue to chase a frontline shortstop knowing they have Zobrist to play second.

The Rays would like to have infielder Jeff Keppinger back. But Keppinger, who made $1.525 million in 2012, is one of seven free agents and his return will be governed by the market.

The same goes for relief pitchers Kyle Farnsworth ($3.3 million in 2012), Joel Peralta ($2.175 million) and J.P. Howell ($1.35 million). All three have said they want to return, and Friedman is interested in having them back. But offers from other teams – money and length of contract – will factor in to those decisions.

The Rays gave B.J. Upton a qualifying offer Friday of one-year, $13.3 million. It's hard to see a scenario where Upton returns, especially when ESPN's Keith Law has Upton ranked as the No. 2 free agent behind pitcher Zack Greinke.

The Rays don't seem interested in resigning Carlos Peña ($7 million in 2012) even at a reduced rate, so once again, they are searching for a first baseman.

Friedman said he and Scott agreed to "keep the door open" this offseason, yet Scott would have to agree to significantly less than the $6 million he was supposed to get in 2013 during the second year of the two-year contract he signed last offseason.

There will be roster turnover.

"It's tough to say for sure (how much)," Friedman said. "There are a number of our guys who are now free agents that we'll keep in touch with and to the extent that we can find an overlap with a number of them it will make that turnover less significant. To the extent that we can't, obviously it will be more. It's just a really tough thing to handicap in early November. Our preference is for a number of these guys to return, but it will take some time for it to work out."

The Rays will be mentioned this offseason in plenty of trade rumors and linked to a number of free agents like Kevin Youkilis, who can play first base and third base, catchers Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski or outfielder Shane Victorino.

Some will be far-fetched. Others could make sense.

In a perfect world, the Rays could sign Pierzynski or Napoli – both upgrades over what they now have at catcher – yet the price will impact other moves. And with the way the Rays do business, one move greatly impacts another.

"Any one decision we make on a position player is going to then limit what we can do thereafter in terms of fit and role, etcetera," Friedman said, "and we wanted to maintain as much flexibility as we could."


rmooney@tampatrib.com

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