LAKE BUENA VISTA — What would the winter meetings be without the Tampa Bay Rays searching for a first baseman?
It has been this way since Carlos Peña left as a free agent after the 2010 season, and it will likely remain this way in the foreseeable future, unless the team this winter acquires a young first baseman who is under team control for more than one season.
This, Andrew Friedman said, is actually by design.
Simply put: It is easier to find a first baseman who meets the Rays’ criteria of high-end defense than it is to find high-end players at some of the other key positions, such as shortstop and starting pitcher.
“I think from a philosophical standpoint we’d much rather have to go to market every year for a first baseman than we would for a shortstop or starting pitcher,” Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, said Tuesday. “It’s something that, I think, the supply and demand works a lot more in the favor of a small-revenue team than it does at other positions where the good players are more scarce, therefore they make more, therefore it’s more difficult for us to compete.
“Would we like to not go to market every winter trying to figure out what to do at first base? Probably. But if we have to do that at certain spots, I’d rather do that there than anywhere else on the field.”
That is why the Rays were eager to trade for Yunel Escobar last December despite his history of being a locker room disruption, because his price tag was $5 million for 2013 with a pair of $5 million team options. That’s a bargain for a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop who now has seven years of big-league experience.
Peña joined the Rays on a minor-league contract in 2007, made the team because of an injury to Greg Norton, became the everyday first baseman after an injury to Akinori Iwamura forced Ty Wigginton to move from first base to third base, had a breakout year and signed a three-year deal after the season.
Casey Kotchman signed a minor-league deal in 2011 and early in the season replaced Dan Johnson, who was slated to replace Peña.
Peña returned in 2012 to replace Kotchman.
James Loney signed a one-year, $2 million contract with $1 million worth of incentives to replace Kotchman.
Now Loney is looking to capitalize on his breakout season. His agent has reportedly asked for as much as $10 million per year for three years.
“If there is some way that he falls back, that would be great, but I don’t know,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said Monday. “He’s deserving of what he gets. I think last year he showed everybody how good of a baseball player he is.”
The Rays would very much like to have Loney back, but at a price south of what Loney is asking.
Loney is drawing interest, though it’s hard to imagine a team will meet that sticker price for a corner infield who has never hit more than 15 home runs in any of his eight big-league seasons.
Word around the meetings is the Pirates are interested in Loney but have balked at the price.
Friedman said he made some progress Tuesday in his quest for a first baseman, which he indentified before the start of the winter meetings as his biggest offseason priority.
“A little bit,” he said. “I think we’re getting more clarity. I wouldn’t characterize anything as imminent, but I think we’re getting more information that is helpful in our decision-making process.”
Free agent? Trade?
“I don’t have any great sense of that yet,” Friedman said.
So far this offseason Friedman has upgraded at catcher (Ryan Hanigan) and added a potential closer (Heath Bell) through trades and re-signed outfielder David DeJesus and reliever Juan Carlos Oviedo, who will compete with Bell for the closer job.
Add those transactions to the returning players and Friedman said he is comfortable with the team that way it is currently set up.
“Short of what we will do at first base, I think we have a chance to be really good,” he said. “That’s our goal, and looking at it from a run-prevention standpoint, we feel like we’re in good position to keep runs off the board. If we’re able to improve upon that in the rest of the winter, all the better.
“And from a run-scoring standpoint, obviously, we need to figure out what we’re going to do at first base. But having DeJesus all year, having Wil Myers for a full season, there’s things in there we feel will make us a better offensive team. But obviously we want to get better on that front as well.”
Seattle is reportedly not willing to include pitcher Taijuan Walker in any trade but might be willing to include a position player. … The Pirates’ interest in David Price seems to be cooling. … Former Rays outfielder Matt Diaz is at the meetings looking to see if he can latch on with a team.