ST. PETERSBURG -- The offseason began in earnest on Monday with a stunning spin of the managerial carousel, a handful of qualifying offers extended to big-time free agents, a flurry of transactions and plenty of Hot Stove buzz as free agency got underway.
It was a busy day for the Rays, too.
Former GM Peter Bendix left to become the Marlins’ new president of baseball operations. A series of roster moves reshaped part of Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster. Manager Kevin Cash was named a finalist for his third American League Manager of the Year Award in the past four years. Meanwhile, president of baseball operations Erik Neander and his staff settled in for the first day of the annual GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz.
With the final out of the World Series not even a week in the rearview mirror, let’s examine the fallout from a newsy day for the Rays.
Neander noted the conflicting emotions that followed Bendix taking over the Marlins’ baseball operations department after 15 seasons with the Rays. They’re obviously thrilled for Bendix, who got his start as a two-time Tampa Bay intern in 2009-10, but understandably sad to watch another key member of the front office -- and a close friend -- walk out the door.
“Pete, like a lot of us, has grown up in this organization and has been a central figure in much of our success and the way that we’ve supported our players,” Neander said Monday night. “So, first and foremost, [we’re] incredibly excited for him. It’s certainly bittersweet, because you pour so much time and energy into one another and these relationships you have with your coworkers, and you’ll miss that. But couldn’t be more happy for him.”
Upper-level front-office turnover isn’t exactly new for the Rays. Andrew Friedman went to the Dodgers. Matt Arnold joined the Brewers. Chaim Bloom ran the Red Sox for four seasons. James Click guided the Astros to a World Series. Now, Bendix is with the Marlins.
The Rays did not immediately replace Bendix with another GM focused on the Major League roster, and it’s worth noting they waited a few months to have Bendix fill that post after Neander was promoted from GM to president of baseball operations in late 2021.
All their attention this week is on the GM Meetings, where Neander is accompanied by senior advisor Jon Daniels, special assistant Bobby Heck and baseball operations vice presidents Carlos Rodriguez, Chanda Lawdermilk, Will Cousins and Kevin Ibach, among others.
If the Rays eventually decide to restructure their front office, it seems likely they’ll continue to promote from within.
“We have a lot of really capable people that are deserving of greater opportunity,” Neander said. “When these moments come along, we have a long track record of allowing the people we have to take on more and to keep us moving in that way.”
By the end of the season, it became apparent that René Pinto had overtaken Christian Bethancourt as the Rays’ primary catcher. They bumped Francisco Mejía off the roster to keep Pinto, and they moved on from Bethancourt when he was claimed off waivers by the Guardians on Monday.
That leaves Pinto as the only catcher on the Rays’ roster and, thus, the likely starter to open 2024. But it’s clearly an area to address this winter, either with a veteran pickup or a younger complement to Pinto.
The Rays dealt upper-level catching prospect Blake Hunt amid Monday’s transaction spree, but they could bring back Trade Deadline acquisition Alex Jackson to serve as depth (or a potential No. 2 option) behind the plate.
“If we find someone to pair with him that deserves a little more of the work, great. If we don’t, we’ll be OK in that regard,” Neander said. “We think highly of René and believe he's well-positioned to have a chance at a greater role. However, we'll continue to look to address the position, certainly.”
The Rays have just one vacant spot on their 40-man roster after dropping a handful of players, with Jalen Beeks and Josh Fleming joining Bethancourt as the most notable subtractions, reinstating seven others from the 60-day injured list and selecting intriguing reliever Manuel Rodríguez.
“We have some tough roster decisions to make,” Neander said. “But somebody’s got to go.”
The Rays’ annual roster crunch was even reflected in a pair of minor trades they made on Monday. Without room on their 40-man roster for further additions, the Rays traded Hunt (to the Mariners) and pitcher Michael Mercado (to the Phillies) rather than losing them to Minor League free agency for no return.
A week from today, they’ll face another deadline to add eligible prospects to protect from the Rule 5 Draft. They could use another catcher. Rotation depth stands out as another need. They’ll presumably continue to pare down their arbitration-eligible class (and fast-rising salary commitments) through trades this offseason.
There are plenty more difficult decisions in store.
Cash is the Rays’ lone representative among this year’s BBWAA Awards finalists, as he’s once again a finalist for AL Manager of the Year.
The Orioles’ Brandon Hyde may be the favorite after leading Baltimore to the AL East title, and Rangers manager Bruce Bochy played a big part in Texas’ rapid rise to a World Series championship. But Cash’s candidacy is another reminder of what he’s accomplished with the Rays, even if they’ve fallen short in the postseason.
“The recognition is not just how many games you win; it's the path you take to get there, how it compares to expectations and the amount of adversity,” Neander said. “I can't say enough about the job that he and the staff did this year. The ending was the ending, but to reach that point and to keep it together and to put ourselves in that position to lead the group to 99 wins was truly remarkable. That's as good a job as he's ever done.”
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