Team MVP Carlos Pena (Associated Press)
The Rays had Carlos Pena under control for this season and next, and it would have been easy for them to say they wanted to see more before making a long-term commitment.
Instead, they took something of a gamble in deciding to reward Pena for his remarkable 2007 season, when he set team records with 46 home runs and 121 RBI and was the consensus AL Comeback Player of the Year, by giving him a three-year, $24.125 million contract. It was by far the most productive season of his career -- he'd hit more than 20 big-league homers only once before -- and the Rays are banking on him staying at least close to the same level.
Pena, 29, was one of the biggest bargains in the game last season, making just $800,000 (plus $400,000 in incentives) after coming to spring training on a minor league deal.
The Rays liked not only what he did but how he did it as he consistently provided a positive influence and veteran leadership throughout their relatively young clubhouse. The fact that he openly raved about how much he liked playing there, and how much he wanted to stay, helped, too.
"Obviously, the first thing is performance," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "We're not just going to bring in a good guy who wants to live in a great area like Tampa Bay if he can't perform. ... But if he weren't the type of person he was and a quality guy, we wouldn't be doing it."
Pena, naturally, was thrilled by the opportunity, talking about how blessed he felt and how determined he was to turn the team into a winner.
"I get to be in a place I absolutely love, around people that I love and people that I know care about me," he said. "It couldn't be any better."
--1B Carlos Pena was rewarded for his amazing 2007 season when the Rays gave him a three-year, $24.125 million contract to avoid arbitration.
--LHP Scott Kazmir avoided arbitration by signing for one year and $3.785 million. The two sides were headed to arbitration until a final round of talks led to an agreement at Jan. 18, nine minutes before the team-imposed deadline to cease talks once salary figures were exchanged.
--RHP Dan Wheeler avoided arbitration by signing for one year and $2.875 million.
--OF-DH Jonny Gomes avoided arbitration by signing for one year and $1.275 million.
--IF-OF Willy Aybar was acquired from Atlanta to fill the hole for a left-handed hitting utilityman. The Rays are confident Aybar has put behind him the personal problems that led to a three-month stint in a substance abuse clinic last summer, as well as the hand injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Aybar will provide an option at third base if prospect Evan Longoria starts the season in the minors and will also be used at second, first and in the outfield.
--RHP James Shields won't be eligible for arbitration until 2010 and free agency until 2013, but the Rays are working on signing him to a long-term deal that with options could cover seven years. Talks have been ongoing, and a deal seems likely before the start of spring training.
--The Rays continue to look for a left-handed reliever, but they were willing to trade one, Jeff Ridgway, to Atlanta in the deal for Willy Aybar. Though Ridgway has an impressive arm and good minor league numbers, he struggled in a late season call-up and didn't figure to make the big-league roster, at least not early in the season. Kurt Birkins and J.P. Howell, also a starter, are the leading left-handed relief candidates.
--OF-DH Rocco Baldelli has been working out and running three days a week with no problems from the previously troubling hamstrings that limited him to 35 games last season. He plans to "turn it up a notch" after returning to Florida at the end of the month. "If I can hit and kind of take it easy running, I think everything will fall right into place after that," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Players who had a larger year-to-year increase in home runs than Carlos Pena, who went from one in 2006 to 46 last year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It certainly wasn't lost on us how much he enjoyed being here." -- Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman, on signing 1B Carlos Pena to a long-term deal.
The Rays filled most of their holes before they even got to the winter meetings, having adding RHP Matt Garza and SS Jason Bartlett in a blockbuster deal with Minnesota for OF Delmon Young, and signing RHP Troy Percival. They sought to improve their defense while bolstering their rotation and bullpen.
ARRIVALS: RHP Troy Percival (free agent from Cardinals), RHP Matt Garza (trade with Twins), SS Jason Bartlett (trade with Twins), OF Cliff Floyd (free agent from Cubs).
DEPARTURES: RHP Brian Stokes (traded to Mets), OF Delmon Young (traded to Twins), INF Brendan Harris (traded to Twins), OF Elijah Dukes (traded to Nationals), INF Josh Wilson (claimed off waivers by Pirates), RHP Shawn Camp (free agent, signed minor league deal with Blue Jays).
FREE AGENTS: C Raul Casanova, INF/OF Greg Norton, C Josh Paul, RHP Jay Witasick.
Paul is the most relevant of the group and the only one the Rays are likely to re-sign. The Rays declined their option on Norton.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: None remaining.
IN LIMBO: The Rays went from deep in outfielders to looking for help, and from short on pitchers to having some to deal. Given their preference for roster flexibility, RHP Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel could be available, as well as LHP J.P. Howell.
OF Rocco Baldelli (hamstrings) has been working out all winter and has reported no problems.
INF/OF Greg Norton (arthroscopic surgery in October 2007 to remove loose bodies in his left elbow and have his ulnar nerve transposed) should be 100 percent by Jan. 1.
LF Carl Crawford (strained left groin) missed the final 12 games of the 2007 season but should be fine.