MLB hot stove: Six hitters the Rays could target after losing out on Nelson Cruz

The Tampa Bay Rays, a team known for winning on shoestring budgets, came into the offseason with money to spend. That is not often the case. Coming into the offseason, Tampa's projected 2019 payroll was approximately $32 million lower than their 2018 payroll thanks to the midseason trades of Chris Archer, Alex Colome, Wilson Ramos, and Denard Span. They have payroll space available to improve a roster that won 90 games this past season.

Tampa used some of that payroll space to sign right-hander Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million contract earlier this month. It is one of the largest free agent contracts in franchise history and his $15 million average annual salary is the largest in franchise history, surpassing the $14 million David Price made in 2014. Even after signing Morton, the Rays made a run at slugger Nelson Cruz, who ultimately joined the Twins on a one-year contract worth $14.3 million guaranteed.

Cruz took the larger salary guarantee -- always a justifiable decision as far as I'm concerned -- and, while you could easily argue the Rays are a better team than the Twins, I think you could just as easily argue the Twins have an easier path to a division title. The Rays have to beat out the powerhouse Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East. In the AL Central the Twins only need to beat out the Indians, a team that slashed payroll this winter.

Anyway, Cruz is now with the Twins, and the Rays still have some money to spend this offseason. It stands to reason they will use it on a bat. This is the club's projected 2019 lineup at the moment:

  1. 3B Matt Duffy
  2. LF Tommy Pham
  3. 2B Joey Wendle
  4. 1B Ji-Man Choi
  5. SS Willy Adames
  6. CF Kevin Kiermaier
  7. DH Yandy Diaz
  8. RF Austin Meadows
  9. C Mike Zunino

We could quibble with the exact batting order all day, but those are the nine names manager Kevin Cash is likely to write into the regular lineup next season. Clearly, there's room for another bat there. Cruz would've slotted in very nicely as the No. 3 or 4 hitter. Instead, the Rays have to find another player to give their money in a rare offseason of extravagance.

So, with that in mind, here are six players the Rays could target after losing out on Cruz, listed alphabetically. I'm assuming neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado are open to taking a big money short-term contract to join the Rays. That seems like a pipe dream for any team.

Jay Bruce went from the Mets to the Mariners in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz trade, and while he's coming off an injury-riddled season, he's only one year removed from a .254/.324/.508 batting line with 36 home runs. Seattle would probably dump him for close to zero return just to get rid of the salary. That salary: $13 million in 2019 and another $13 million in 2020, which figures to be a problem. Sure, the Mariners will probably eat some money to facilitate a trade, but if the Rays were willing to spend that much across two years, they would've just offered it to Cruz. The salary and the second guaranteed year will likely push Tampa in a different direction.

Very quietly, Tigers slugger Nicholas Castellanos has turned himself into one of the best hitters in baseball. He authored a .298/.354/.500 batting line with 46 doubles and 23 home runs in 2018, and over the last three seasons he's hit .285/.336/.495 and averaged 74 extra-base hits per 162 games. MLB Trade Rumors projects Castellanos to make $11.3 million in 2019, his final season of arbitration-eligibility before qualifying for free agency. The downside? Castellanos is really good and several other teams (Braves and Dodgers, most notably) are after him, so Tampa would have to win a prospect bidding war. Their farm system is very good and they have the prospects to do that. It's just a question of how much young talent they're willing to give up.

The most obvious trade target in the wake of losing out on Cruz. Edwin Encarnacion went from the Indians to the Mariners in the Carlos Santana/Yandy Diaz three-team trade and, for a little while there, it was rumored Encarnacion would wind up with the Rays as part of that trade. That didn't happen. He's with the Mariners and MLB.com's Jon Morosi reports the team is "increasingly confident" they will be able to trade Encarnacion before spring training.

On paper, Encarnacion is the perfect Cruz alternative. He's another big right-handed bat who fits best at DH. Encarnacion had a down season in 2018, hitting .246/.336/.474 with 32 home runs, but even down year Encarnacion is a worthwhile add to the lineup. His 2019 Steamer projection is a comfortably above-average .237/.337/.463 with 29 homers. At age 36, Encarnacion may no longer be the 40-homer monster he was from 2012-17, but he's still awfully dangerous.

The money situation is a tad complicated because, as part of the three-team trade, the Rays are sending $5 million to the Mariners in 2019. Encarnacion is owed $25 million in 2019 between his salary and 2020 option buyout, but Tampa is already responsible for $5 million of that. It's money already spent. They'd take on $20 million in new money, and after capping their offer for Cruz at $12 million, it stands to reason they won't be willing to absorb $20 million to get Encarnacion. The Rays would presumably need the Mariners to eat money to make this work.

Doesn't Evan Gattis just seem like a Rays player? He seems like a Rays player to me. Gattis hit .226/.284/.452 with 25 home runs for the Astros this past season, and while the home runs are nice, he more or less lost his job to Tyler White down the stretch. Gattis has never been a big on-base guy but he doesn't strike out excessively and he'll put a mistake in the seats. And, unlike the other five players in this post, he's a free agent and available for nothing but cash. It won't take $12 million to sign him either, so Tampa could add a power bat in Gattis and still have money left over for other needs.

Other players in this post have more name value but I love Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta as a fit for the Rays. He hit .293/.352/.516 with 30 home runs this past season, his projected 2019 salary ($7.7 million) is not exorbitant, and he'll remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2020. We know the D-Backs are selling and rebuilding -- the Paul Goldschmidt trade confirmed that -- so it stands to reason Peralta is available. It won't be a salary dump, the Rays will have to give up real prospects to get him, but Peralta is worth it. He's a legitimate middle-of-the-order thumper and fits Tampa's more-with-less style.

Given their current state, I assume the Orioles will give Mark Trumbo away to just unload his $13.5 million salary in 2019. He hit .261/.313/.452 with 17 home runs in 90 games around knee trouble this past season, so there's still some pop in his bat, and there's a chance he could get back to his 30-homer ways with good health in 2019. Granted, trading for Trumbo after losing out on Cruz would be awfully underwhelming, but he is surely available and there is some bounceback potential. Besides, doesn't it just feel like Trumbo should be a Ray at some point? It feels like Trumbo should be a Ray at some point.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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