The Rays’ biggest offseason transactions

NFL playoffs are well underway and spring is just around the corner. Almost exactly a month from now, on February 19, the pitchers and catchers of the Tampa Bay Rays will report to spring training.

It is never going to be easy playing in the AL East and the Yankees and Red Sox both seem to once again have gotten stronger during the offseason. But even though the Rays haven’t had a real busy offseason, the moves that they have made can have a big impact on the team if they pan out.

Here are the three big moves the Rays made so far this offseason:

Trading 2B Akinori Iwamura to the Pirates

For three seasons Aki brought some life and a spark to the Tampa Bay clubhouse with his bright smile, crocodile gloves and always positive attitude. He never complained when he was asked to switch from 3rd to 2nd base to make room for golden boy Evan Longoria and made the switch look easy.

But for the past two seasons Ben Zobrist has been a rising star for the Rays and when Iwamura was out with a knee injury during this past season Zobrist stepped in and played very well. It would seem like Joe Maddon decided during the season that Zobrist was ready to become the future starter at 2nd base and shortly after the season ended Iwamura was traded to the Pirates for young pitcher Jesse Chavez.

Aki by the way continued the very classy tradition that I believe was started by Pat Burrell a year ago and since followed by Scott Kazmir and Roy Halladay as well, in taking out a full page add in the local newspapers to thank the fans on his way out of town. You can see the add here:

Trade for C Kelly Shoppach

On December 1st the Rays addressed their problems at the catcher position by trading for Kelly Shoppach. Dioner Navarro had a really tough year at bat but there wasn’t any depth to speak of behind him to help him out. The team traded for Greg Zaun in August but didn’t pick up the option for another year. Catcher was obviously a priority for the team in the offseason and it would seem like they made a solid move to get Shoppach.

Kelly has proven in previous seasons that he can be an above average batter for a catcher. Like Navarro his average dropped a bit in 2009 but he hits for more power and RBIs than Navarro. The way I see it the starting catcher position is up for grabs and this battle between Shoppach and Navarro will be one of the most interesting to follow in spring training. The most important part about this trade is that no matter who ends up being the daily starter at catcher this year, the depth is a lot stronger than last season

In order to get Shoppach we gave up minor league pitcher Mitch Talbot. It didn’t seem like he was going to be able to crack the Rays lineup anytime soon, so it didn’t really cost us much. Got to love a trade where you get a player for a position of need by giving up a player you can’t really use yourself anyway.

Trade for RP Rafael Soriano

Previously I didn’t really mention anything about the player we received in return for Iwamura, Jesse Chavez. That’s because he is not with the team anymore. In December he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for veteran closer Rafael Soriano.

For the most part the past years the Rays have had a nice group of young hitters and an above average lineup of starting pitchers. The one element of the team that has left fans pulling their hair out in frustration has for the most part been the bullpen. The only year recently where the Rays have had a true closer throughout the season was in 2008 with Troy Percival. I don’t think I need to remind anybody of the effect that had on the team.

Soriano comes in with a lot of experience and has been consistently putting up solid numbers. But a closer don’t even have to be perfect to have a major impact. Having a closer gives Howell, Wheeler and Balfour one less inning to worry about and one less inning to share between them on a tough night.

As you can probably tell I’m a big believer in the power of having a real closer in your bullpen. It doesn’t hurt when the guy comes with experience and good numbers as well. That is why I feel that as much as I love Iwamura as a person and team player, basically trading him for Soriano is a major upgrade to the team. If he can stay healthy throughout the season, hopefully he can make a big impact on the bullpen.

Like I said it has been a pretty quiet offseason. These three moves, or two really if you look at it like we traded Iwamura for Soriano, are the only big moves the Rays have made. But they do address the two biggest weaknesses of the team during the 2009 season. And of course like always Durham is full of prospects just waiting for a chance to shine. Starting Pitcher Wade Davis who was called up in September and started 6 games will probably be starting this season in the rotation.

Just one more month to go till the ol’ ball parks slowly come to life and spring is here. It should be an interesting year.