Even barrel bottom has Rays priced out

Rays still having a tough time competing for free agents.

Published December 10, 2006

The biggest thing that came out of four days of marathon talks and minimal action at the winter meetings may have been this:

It's going to be hard for the Devil Rays to get better.

Signing any free agents, even lower-tier veterans, is going to be more difficult than they hoped. And trading for elite young players may require tougher decisions than they wanted to make.

The trickle-down effect of the soaring free-agent market, which the Rays hoped to be insulated from, was painfully obvious in their bid for closer Octavio Dotel. Dotel hasn't pitched a full season since 2004 but shockingly got $5-million guaranteed, and another $2.5-million in incentives, from the Royals.

The same with mediocre starters. Gil Meche got $55-million over five years from the Royals, Adam Eaton received $24-million over three from the Phillies, and Jason Marquis is near a three-year deal worth around $20-million with the Cubs.

Money isn't the only issue. The Rays must fight the battle of getting players to come to Tampa Bay when the team doesn't have a chance to win.

That's why another veteran reliever they were interested in, Russ Springer, took a modest $1.75-million deal from the World Series champion Cardinals. And why the Royals, like the Tigers a few years ago, admittedly overpay for free agents they get.

The Rays know trading is a more realistic route to improvement. But they found that market tough, too, as other teams, as the Rays long have, are realizing the tremendous value of young players and putting a high price on them. That will make it even tougher to find a workable deal.

Still, the Braves remain extremely interested in centerfielder Rocco Baldelli, enough that they are going somewhat public in their quest and willing to talk about some of their prized prospects, such as catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and shortstop Yunel Escobar. The Rays, though, want pitching, which makes Chuck James and Kyle Davies more appealing.

But the Braves, who see Baldelli as the eventual replacement for free-agent-to-be Andruw Jones, usually get what they want, which should make for some interesting conversations during the next week. And some difficult decisions for the Rays.

NO JOSHING: Being acquired by the Reds through the Rule 5 draft and promoted to the major leagues could be the best thing to ever happen to Josh Hamilton.

Or the worst. Living the major-league life could make it tougher for his personal battles with drugs and alcohol, and sitting on the bench for the entire season will rob him of direly needed development time. But here's wishing him the best.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: The three remaining arbitration-eligible players - Seth McClung, Josh Paul and Ty Wigginton - are expected to be tendered contracts by Tuesday's deadline. ... Asked (unexpectedly) for a projected opening day lineup, manager Joe Maddon had Wigginton at first, Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura at third and B.J. Upton nowhere. ... Scott Kazmir told the Associated Press his left shoulder was "100 percent" and there was "no doubt" he'll be ready for spring training. ... The Rays rejected a deal to send Upton to the Marlins for pitcher Ricky Nolasco. ... Rays officials were baffled by reports they'd acquired left-hander Jay Marshall from Oakland. The deal for the top pick in the Rule 5 draft was for $100,000, and they were happy with it. ... Losing Hamilton and pitcher Nick DeBarr in the draft hurt, but executive vice president Andrew Friedman said it was "kind of a testament" to the depth of their system. ... Pre- and ingame host Todd Kalas is a candidate for the Brewers lead TV broadcast job. ... Japanese reliever Shinji Mori, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, is throwing but isn't likely to be ready at the start of spring training.

MORE RUMBLES: Remember the trading deadline buzz about the Red Sox possibly tampering with Julio Lugo as he considered a contract extension from the Rays? The Dodgers reportedly have similar complaints about the J.D. Drew situation. ... Former Ray Aubrey Huff's name has come up with the Angels, Dodgers, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers and Rockies. Toby Hall could end up in Philadelphia. ... With Cam Bonifay joining the Cardinals as a special assistant, the top three baseball officials of the previous regime are back in the game. Chuck LaMar is with the Nationals and Scott Proefrock the Orioles. ... The Rays are hosting a holiday party for foster children Monday at Tropicana Field. ... Former Rays infielder Nick Green, in new Maddon-style glasses, was cruising the winter meetings lobby looking for a job.

WINTER WONDERS: Former Rays reliever Lance Carter is headed to Japan to pitch for Orix, where Terry Collins is taking over as manager. ... Royals manager Buddy Bell didn't appreciate Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi questioning Meche's competitiveness in going to Kansas City instead of Toronto. Ricciardi's "an interesting guy for all he's done in the game," Bell told the Kansas City Star. "He's a little guy with a big mouth, and all he does is whine." ... Orioles owner Peter Angelos reportedly killed a deal to send Brian Roberts and Hayden Penn to Atlanta for Marcus Giles and Adam LaRoche. ... The Angels were talking about a deal to get Todd Helton from the Rockies. ... The Marlins are so desperate for a centerfielder that they made a minor-league deal with Alex Sanchez, the former Rays outfielder most known for being the first player caught under baseball's toughened steroids policy.

Marc Topkin can be reached at (727) 893-8801 or topkin@sptimes.com.



Positions wanted

After a relatively uneventful winter meetings, quite a few big-name free agents are still looking for work. Among them:

Starting pitchers

Roger Clemens

Miguel Batista

Mark Mulder

Jeff Suppan

Barry Zito


Rod Barajas, C

Ron Belliard, INF

Darin Erstad, 1B/OF

Cliff Floyd, OF

Shea Hillenbrand, 1B

Aubrey Huff, 1B/3B/OF

Ryan Klesko, 1B/OF

Mark Loretta, 2B

Doug Mientkiewicz, 1B

Trot Nixon, OF