The Rays had a disappointing 2012 campaign, but that can largely be tied to the absence of one player: Evan Longoria, the team's superstar third baseman who played just 74 games. Being without an MVP candidate for half of the season isn't a good way to compete for a playoff spot, and considering that the Rays fell just three games shy of a playoff berth, Longoria's absence was an absolute crusher for the team. But that doesn't mean that his torn hamstring was the sole reason for the Rays' struggles…struggles that they'll try to correct in free agency this winter.
Center fielder BJ Upton is as good as gone, and while the Rays will likely replace him by shifting left fielder Desmond Jennings to center, they'll then need to fill Jennings' spot in left. First baseman Carlos Pena and DH Luke Scott are both also likely gone, though Scott may have his option picked up for 2013 at $6 million. The Rays also have some holes in the bullpen with Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, and JP Howell all hitting free agency, and supersub Jeff Keppinger is also hitting free agency after a 2012 season that may have priced him out of Tampa Bay's range.
You know who I think the Rays could make a play for to fill their left field hole? Melky Cabrera, who has had his reputation destroyed after testing positive for testosterone this summer, likely scaring teams away from giving him a multi-year contract. Cabrera is the exact type of player that the Rays have gone after in the past (to varying success), and if interest in him isn't widespread, the Rays could swoop in and grab him. Another guy I can see the Rays chasing is Andruw Jones, who could be had for a song after a difficult 2012 with the Yankees but might still have a little bit of fuel left in the tank. As for that first base job…uh, think cheap after Pena didn't work out in his return to Tampa. James Loney could likely be signed cheaply, and is one of those guys who has never been able to reach his potential…you know, a Rays reclamation specialty. After hitting the wall full force this season, former Astros and Marlins first baseman Carlos Lee might be worth a look for the budget-conscious Rays. As for the bullpen, look at Tampa Bay's history with relievers: it's never the big name expensive relievers they go after, it's the under the radar types that wouldn't be coveted by many teams. I think Matt Capps, who had his option declined by the Twins last week, might be a potential fit, along with failed former closers Francisco Cordero and Kevin Gregg. But the most "Rays" reliever on the market might be Ryan Madson, who didn't throw a pitch with the Reds this year after Tommy John surgery in the spring and could be willing to take a lower salary on a one year deal to prove himself and set himself up for a multi-year deal on the market after 2013.
Now this is where the Rays thrive…trading assets as they age and get more expensive for younger, quality players. They spun Delmon Young into Matt Garza before 2008, and then dealt Garza for a package that included Chris Archer before 2011. Archer is one of the sexier pitching prospects in baseball, and will be a huge factor on the 2013 Rays, be it in the bullpen or the rotation. Looking at players they could spin off this offseason, two players immediately come to mind: starting pitchers James Shields and David Price. Shields will make $9 million this year when the Rays pick up his 2013 option, and Price will likely make somewhere in the same neighborhood of the salary in his second of four arbitration years. Both pitchers are key parts of the Rays team, but the pair will make up close to 30% of the team's payroll…that's a situation you don't want to get into, and the Rays are masters of trading players like them and bolstering the farm system even more while still contending immediately.
I don't think the Rays really have any particular players in mind. Most of their trades are for prospects by the bushel-full as opposed to the usual way of dealing prospects for a certain player. But I think getting a young, major league ready first baseman back in any deal they make, be it for a veteran or for prospects, would be wise. Ike Davis could be a great buy low target for the team after the Mets have reportedly soured on him. Darin Ruf of the Phillies is another guy that the Rays could take a sniff at, especially if the Phillies aren't impressed by his conversion to left field this winter. At any rate, no matter what the Rays end up doing in terms of trades this winter, I'd be willing to bet that in three years, they'd end up on the winning side of any deals they make.