Quiet start to Winter Meetings for Rays

Quiet start to Winter Meetings for Rays

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- No action took place in the Devil Rays' camp Monday on the first day of Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings, but rumors about the interest other clubs have in Rays outfielders Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford made for good fodder.

Fodder on which Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, would not bite.

"There's a tremendous amount of interest in a lot of our young players," Friedman said. "We deal with a lot of calls on a lot of our good young players. As the free-agent market continues to shake out with all these inflated contracts, I think these young players become even more valuable."

Aside from the obvious talents of Baldelli and Crawford, the club has them signed to long-term deals that look like bargains in a marketplace that recently saw Gary Matthews Jr. sign a five-year, $50 million deal with the Angels. Baldelli and Crawford together will make roughly $50 million combined over the next five years (the Rays control Baldelli through 2011 and Crawford through 2010).

"It's early on in their contracts, and we're excited to have both of them signed to long-term deals," Friedman said. "But I think it takes getting to the end of a contract before you can really reflect on that. I think at the time of the contracts, both sides were very happy with the deals. And so, at the end you kind of see where it shakes out."

A rumored deal to send Baldelli to the Marlins for a pitcher from a list that included right-handers Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson and left-hander Scott Olsen continued to circulate, but there was no evidence such a deal had any legs.

Friedman continued to harp on the Rays' desire to strengthen the bullpen to where they could have four pitchers they were not afraid to bring in late in the game with the score tied or with the team leading.

"We're trying to improve our bullpen in talking to teams and with free agents," Friedman said. "So without getting into any specific players, that is something that's on our agenda this week."

He added that the team has had a lot of conversations leading up to Monday and there are certain players they have targeted to make deals for or to sign.

"There are teams we've reached out to with specific interest in certain players," Friedman said. "I think this week we'll get a better sense of where they stand."

When asked to characterize those players, Friedman said: "For the most part, the players we've targeted are players who will help our Major League club in '07."

One player clearly in the Rays' crosshairs is Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura, for whom the Rays bid $4.5 million to win the negotiating rights for on Nov. 15. If signed, Iwamura can play several different positions and would give the team some flexibility.

"I think the one thing that he definitely supplies us is flexibility," Friedman said. "And that's always a good thing in early December when you're still trying to put together your roster. I think he provides us a lot of flexibility to go a lot of different ways in conversations. And so we're anxious to get through this month to see how the pieces kind of fit together."

The Rays met Sunday with Iwamura's agent, Alan Nero, and Friedman said the discussions were progressing.

"Nothing is imminent, but we're optimistic that we will get the deal done," Friedman said. "We're optimistic that we will [sign him], but we're not going to treat it like it's a done deal."

Iwamura toured Tropicana Field on Saturday.

"He liked it," Friedman said. "He walked around and thought that the lines were a little deeper and the alleys were a little closer. He got excited about some doubles and triples."

As for a position preference...

"He had a great attitude," Friedman said. "He said he'd play wherever we wanted him to, and he asked how many gloves he should bring to Spring Training. He had a very good approach to it, and I think he's willing to do whatever [Rays manager Joe Maddon] wants him to do."

The Rays have until Dec. 15 to finalize a contract with Iwamura. If he does not sign, the Rays do not have to pay the $4.5 million posting fee, and Iwamura would return to play in Japan.

Nero complimented the Rays' management, but he did not sound as optimistic about the deal as the Rays.

"[Iwamura] might go back to Japan," Nero said. "We're about as far apart as Tokyo and Tampa."

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