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How Will the Tampa Bay Rays Cut Their Payroll?

By Robbie Knopf
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2014 was a year where the Tampa Bay Rays took on more risk than usual in pursuit of a championship. Needless to say, it did not work out, but that isn’t all. The Rays enter this offseason hoping to rebound from their rough season and still lower their payroll. Is that even possible? A look at the commitments the Rays currently have for 2015 suggests that it will be difficult.

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According to Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors, the Rays currently rank 20th in payroll obligations for 2015 when we include projected arbitration salaries. To put that in perspective, the Rays’ Opening Day payroll of $76.87 million was the highest in team history yet ranked just 27th in baseball. The Rays’ current $85.61 million figure will not rank so highly once teams sign free agents, but it is still a red flag as the Rays hope to cut payroll and get back to their usual position as one of the lowest-payroll teams in baseball. To what extent will the Rays be able to reduce that number?

Before we even start, it is worth noting that the Rays’ commitments to non-player personnel went down significantly this offseason with the departures of Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon. Shifting from Friedman to Matt Silverman will save the Rays a couple of million dollars since the Rays were paying Silverman already anyway. Going from Maddon to a new manager should save some money as well. The Rays will have some wiggle room as they hope to reduce payroll, but the bulk of their maneuvering will have to come from trading players away.

The two players who seem the least likely to be with the Rays’ next season are Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Joyce. Hellickson, as we’ve discussed quite a bit, could be traded soon, and Joyce is a prime candidate to be dealt as well. Joyce’s place on the team would be somewhat clearer than Hellickson’s if he stayed, but the Rays would be fine with the options they have left. If the Rays traded Hellickson and Joyce for prospects, they would save a projected $8.8 million.

The next major question is whether the Rays could look to trade another outfielder on top of Joyce. The most expensive option they have is DeJesus, but considering his $5 million salary for 2015 (plus a $1 million buyout for 2016) and his injury-prone 2014, it seems improbable that the Rays could get anything for him. He won’t be critical to their 2015 hopes, but at the very least, he could help.

A player on the opposite edge of the spectrum is Desmond Jennings because trading him could be a major blow for the Rays. Kevin Kiermaier looked good for a while in 2014, but he faltered before long and could not hit lefties at all. Are the Rays going to willingly go from a solid if not spectacular centerfield situation with Jennings to a questionable platoon of Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer in center? It would take a significant trade offer–such as one including Evan Gattis–for the Rays to consider trading Jennings and his projected $3.2 million salary.

We can also touch on the Rays’ infield, but it seems extremely unlikely that a deal will happen. Ben Zobrist could head elsewhere, but it makes no sense for the Rays to deal him if they are serious about contending. That leaves Yunel Escobar, who could be traded if a team looks past his rough 2014 and gives the Rays a real offer. Of course, that seems quite unlikely. In any event, the Rays would not have a clear starting shortstop for 2016 (after Zobrist leaves) if Escobar was dealt.

Two obvious players that the Rays would love to move are Sean Rodriguez ($2.0 million projected) and Jose Molina ($2.75 million). Rodriguez could be replaced by a player like Tim Beckham or a minor league signing making closer to the minimum. The Rays would not get much in exchange for him, but because he is so replaceable, a prospect of any value could be enough. Getting rid of Molina would be a trickier story. The Rays’ best bet would be to try to get a team to take him on as part of a trade of one of their more prominent trade chips, but it seems likely that they will be stuck with him.

On the pitching side, the Rays could see if anyone would take Grant Balfour‘s $7 million salary, but the only way that would work would be if they took on a salary about as bad. At least from a payroll perspective, the Rays will not get much help in that regard. Joel Peralta could also be moved, and his $2.5 million salary is more reasonable. The Rays could build a bullpen without him, and would also have the free agent market to work with. If they get an actual offer for Peralta, a deal could come together.

There are also some less probable trade candidates, like Jake McGee and the Rays’ starting pitchers, but none of them are going anywhere because the Rays are still contending. More interesting options will be the Rays’ Triple-A rotation (Alex Colome, Nate Karns, Enny Romero, Matt Andriese, and Mike Montgomery) and their relief depth, but all of them are making the league minimum and are irrelevant here.

If the Rays trade Hellickson and Joyce, they would be left with a payroll of $76.81 million. That doesn’t look so bad when we factor in Friedman and Maddon being gone, but we have to expect that the Rays will do more than that. The Rays would love to trade DeJesus and Molina as well, but more likely goners are Rodriguez and Peralta. Even if we subtract their salaries, though, the Rays would still have $72.31 million left. With that in mind, could the Rays push hard to trade Jennings or deal DeJesus in a salary dump? Will they be willing to take a lesser return for someone else to rid themselves of Molina? Could they shock us all and trade Zobrist?

If the Tampa Bay Rays are truly looking to decrease payroll and still contend, the numbers don’t add up. Either they are not going to cut payroll by much at all, or major changes are coming.

What will the Rays do? Given that they still have the talent to contend this season, the likely outcome is that they will reduce their player salaries by the minimum value they could possibly withstand. The Rays understand that 2015 could be another tough season for them from a payroll standpoint, but they will have Zobrist, Balfour, and DeJesus all coming off the books after the season to save them $18.5 million. That will have to be enough.

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