PORT CHARLOTTE — Evan Longoria traded in December. Jake Odorizzi and Corey Dickerson dumped over the weekend. Then, in a stunning move Tuesday night, 2017 team MVP Steven Souza Jr. shipped to Arizona as part of a three-team deal that netted only more prospects for the future.
What are the Rays doing?
And how quickly should Chris Archer and Kevin Kiermaier be packing their bags?
According to Rays general manager Erik Neander, the Souza deal was much different.
Whereas Odorizzi (and his $6.3 million salary) was traded to Minnesota and 2017 All-Star Dickerson (and his $5.95 million) was designated for assignment to dump salary from positions of depth, Neander said dealing Souza (and his $3.55 million) was more "a pure baseball decision" driven by Arizona's strong pursuit of the multi-talented rightfielder.
More importantly, Neander said that trading Souza was the end of the goodbyes, at least for now.
That they have no plans to deal Archer, their valuable top starter, or Kiermaier, their prized centerfielder. That they are not looking to further blow up a team that they still feel, despite the departures, can be competitive in 2018.
"I would say extremely unlikely," he said. "Our focus at this point is we'd like to add a little bit. We're not looking to pull this thing back."
Still, trading Souza, 28, creates a significant void in an already weakened lineup as he broke out last season, hitting 30 home runs, posting an .810 OPS and playing impressive, though sometimes adventurous, defense.
Basically, Neander said the D'backs, working with the Yankees, put together a four-player package "we felt we couldn't pass up in continuing to build out a really strong core" for the future, whenever that is.
The return is highlighted by left-handed starter Anthony Banda, a hard-throwing 24-year-old ranked as Arizona's No. 2 prospect by Baseball America who made it to the majors last season, going 2-3 with a 5.96 ERA. Neander said Banda "will be right in the mix for us."
The other key piece is Nick Solak, 23, an offense-oriented second baseman rated as the Yankees' 12th-best prospect. He split last season between Class A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, hitting .297 with 12 homers, 53 RBIs and an .835 OPS.
They also get two to-be-named players Neander said can help "a little further down the line."
Souza, however, indicated that finances were a factor in the Rays' decision, alluding to principal owner Stuart Sternberg's unrealistic orders to cut a payroll that was pushing $80 million.
"It's a tough job that Erik really has, especially when the owner gives him the opportunity to meet a certain payroll," Souza said. "They're trying to do what's best for the long-term future of the organization, and it's not an easy job being the GM of a major-league team and there is a budget that's not very realistic that they have to meet."
Neander acknowledged they "have some work to do" to find a replacement for Souza given they don't have any appealing options — aside from playing an all-lefty outfield of Mallex Smith, Kiermaier and Denard Span. Though they added right-handed first baseman/DH C.J. Cron, they are sorely lacking in right-handed power.
And Neander admitted that the level of replacement player — read: financial commitment — will be determined by what "makes sense" while noting the large number of players still available in the unprecedented slow market they can consider. (Hmm, there's this Dickerson guy … )
"We're in a position where our payroll is … comparable to opening day of last year," around $70 million, he said. "We want to see where things take us. We'd like to shift our focus here to seeing if there are things we can do to bolster our position player group."
Given those possibilities, Neander insists that not only are the Rays not tanking, or playing to lose, but because of how well they can pitch and catch the ball they can and will still compete.
"This isn't a team that's going to win 60 games here," he said. "With respect to the quality of our pitching and the quality of our defense, we're going to be competitive."
Souza, acquired from Washington in a three-team December 2014 deal, said he was surprised but could handle being traded again. It's just that it was much tougher leaving the Rays, given the opportunity he was given and growth and success he had.
"This is actually really, really hard," he said. "There's been a lot of emotional phone calls I've had from people. And I'm really going to miss a lot of people. I have nothing but great things to say about the organization and the way they've treated me and the patience they've given me and everything they've done. That being said, I'm extremely excited to go join a team that's ready to contend for the World Series."
Reaction to the previous moves has been extremely negative, including from within the clubhouse, Kiermaier saying he was "100 percent frustrated and very upset." That is likely to be more even more pointed now.
Souza said he understood it was "hard" and "confusing" for fans but encouraged them to stick with the team: "These are tough times. Real fans stand by a team when it goes through low times and when it goes through high times."
The Yankees got infielder Brandon Drury and sent pitcher Taylor Widener to Arizona.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.