The watchword will be flexibility

Published September 24, 2006

The Devil Rays don't know yet what they are going to do this winter to get better.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Heading into meetings this week with manager Joe Maddon and his coaches, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said they are open to all possibilities: signing a big-name free agent in the right situation, trading for a front-line player by trading one of theirs or making a series of small moves as they did last offseason.

"We're not far enough along to not listen on anything," Friedman said. "We are continuing to assess the right players to form the nucleus so that we can start focusing on supplementing around them. There obviously are some players that would be much more difficult for us to be willing to talk about, but we are going to head into the winter with an open mind toward building a team that can compete in this division."

The initial emphasis likely will be on improving their infield defense and relief pitching, both of which can be addressed in their value-driven approach. Decisions on where Ty Wigginton (a great value this year at $675,000) and B.J. Upton play may wait until they see what other moves are possible.

But if the Rays are going to get, say, a front-of-the-rotation starter, it is likely to be either a free agent who ends up available at a below-market price or in a trade. Though it's easy to say "everyone is available," the Rays would have to make quite a deal to trade a Carl Crawford or Rocco Baldelli and not look hypocritical given their pledge to develop stars fans can identify with.

Even without a payroll increase (or even with a reduction), Friedman insisted they are determined to make the team better. "Absolutely," he said. "What's important to us is to definitely improve next year without severely impacting our chances for success in future years."

That means they'll make a move that will help them for several years, but not for one. Or they could make one this winter that won't pay off until the next year, say, acquiring a young future star or signing a free agent pitcher coming off surgery, similar to how the Tigers built over several seasons.

"Our goal is to get incrementally better each year, some years less so than others as long as the right moves are being made," Friedman said.

MINOR MATTERS: Former managing general partner Vince Naimoli - already a Notre Dame fanatic - is one of 60 investors who bought the Class A minor-league team to keep it from moving out of South Bend, Ind. The Silver Hawks are a Diamondbacks affiliate. ... The Rays' only avenue to get their advanced Class A team out of the California League is to either affiliate with or buy the Florida State League Vero Beach team that the Dodgers own but are looking to ditch. ... Options for the other Class A team are Columbus (also a Dodgers affiliate) and Savannah (Nationals), Ga., in the South Atlantic League and Clinton, Iowa, (Rangers) in the Midwest League. Teams have until Saturday to work out deals.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: The team has decided to keep the present configuration with all-dirt basepaths when it replaces the FieldTurf for next season. ... With the Indians moving spring training to Arizona instead of a new Disney complex, the Rays have one less competitor for the state funding they need to make their deal in Port Charlotte work. ... Having broken ground last week on their Venezuelan academy, the Rays are next moving into Colombia, where they will renovate a small complex in Cartagena and join the Astros as the only teams with their own facilities. ... Contract extensions for TV broadcasters Joe Magrane and Dewayne Staats should be finalized this week. ... Former manager Lou Piniella is already being mentioned as a replacement for Joe Girardi with the Marlins. ... By ESPN's calculations, the Rays rank third behind the Marlins and Rockies in lowest payroll cost per victory at about $610,000 for each of their first 58. ... Yankees manager Joe Torre said he's glad buddy Don Zimmer is working for his hometown Rays so Zimmer's wife, Soot, "can keep an eye on him, which is always good. I wasn't always able to do that."