Rays still have needs as Winter Meetings near

Tampa Bay could break out of listening mode, take action in Nashville

Rays still have needs as Winter Meetings near

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays got busy early in this offseason, and it's likely more work toward improving the 2016 team will take place at next week's Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn.

MLB.com and MLB Network will have wall-to-wall coverage of the 2015 Winter Meetings from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, with the Network launching 35 hours of live Winter Meetings coverage on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET. Fans can also catch live streaming of all news conferences and manager availability on MLB.com, as well as the announcement of the Hall of Fame Pre-Integration Era Committee inductees on Monday at 11 a.m. ET and the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday at 10 a.m. ET.

On Nov. 5, the Rays traded left-hander C.J. Riefenhauser, right-hander Nathan Karns and Minor League outfielder Boog Powell to the Mariners for outfielder/first baseman Logan Morrison, shortstop Brad Miller and right-hander Danny Farquhar. On Wednesday night, Tampa Bay acquired catcher Hank Conger from the Astros for cash considerations.

Historically, the Rays operate in a listening mode during the Winter Meetings, laying the groundwork for deals that normally take place shortly after. Whether they are in a listening mode this year or if they'll take action remains to be seen, but the team has needs and several strengths to deal from if it wants to pull the trigger on a deal during or after the Winter Meetings.

For starters, Tampa Bay is always looking to lower the payroll without weakening the club. Last season's $75.79 million Opening Day payroll could look high compared to what the 2016 payroll will be, but the team should be improved.

Grant Balfour's $7.5 million won't be on this year's payroll, nor will David DeJesus' $5.1 million, and it's highly unlikely that free agents Asdrubal Cabrera ($5.12 million in 2015) or John Jaso ($3.175 million) will be back in '16. That leaves Evan Longoria, who is slated to make $12.1 million this season, and James Loney ($9.667 million) as the highest-paid players.

Would the Rays trade Longoria? The team always listens to any deal, but it's unlikely they would trade the face of the franchise unless somebody blew their socks off. Would they trade Loney? In a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, Loney is a hybrid of sorts for a first baseman. He is a dangerous hitter in that he gives quality at-bats and has the ability to drive the ball in the gap, but he doesn't have a lot of power, having hit just 26 home runs over the past three seasons. So even when you factor in his plus defense, he doesn't have a ton of trade value.

Jake McGee might prove to be such a sweetner. The hard-throwing left-hander made $3.35 million in 2015 and is arbitration-eligible, which should bring a nice bump.

McGee notches the save

If the Rays don't have McGee for the late innings, they still have Brad Boxberger and Alex Colome. As for a hard-throwing lefty, Enny Romero appeareed to take strides in that direction late last season.

A Loney-McGee package would clear approximately $13 million off the payroll, open up first base for Morrison and give Tampa Bay the ability to absorb a larger salary, whether it be for the player or players acquired by such a trade or by a free-agent signing.

In that regard, what would happen if the Pirates became suitors? Remember, the Bucs were interested in Loney when the Rays managed to re-sign him to a new three-year, $21 million deal prior to the 2014 season.

First baseman Pedro Alvarez's glove makes him less attractive to a National League club, while his bat would make him a coveted DH addition for Tampa Bay. He made $5.75 million in 2015 and is headed for his final year of arbitration.

Other options for the Rays might include shipping McGee or one of the team's young outfielders for prospects. In addition, Tampa Bay has a depth of starting pitching if the club finds a player it wants to pursue.

Alas, guessing what the Rays might do can be an exercise in futility. Of course, that's what makes the Winter Meetings and the Hot Stove season fun for any fan.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.