Bargain-hunting Rays still have some holes

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The Rays have spent some money this winter, adding Yunel Escobar for shortstop, James Loney for first base and Roberto Hernandez to the pitching staff. Their rotation is fine even with James Shields gone and the infield might be set, if Ben Zobrist plays second base, but the team still has some needs as is.

Outfield: Desmond Jennings is the only sure starter in the Tampa Bay outfield, and it’s still unclear if he’ll be playing left or center. Matt Joyce will start somewhere against righties, probably in right field but perhaps at designated hitter. A career .201/.288/.325 hitter in 234 at-bats against lefties,  he’s more useful being platooned.

Beyond those two, the Rays have the option of playing Zobrist in right, but they seem more likely to use him at second initially. Brandon Guyer was looking like a nice sleeper entering last season, but he opened up in Triple-A and then suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in May. Sam Fuld is also back healthy after missing much of the season, but he should be viewed as a reserve. Top prospect Wil Myers will almost certainly spend the first month in Triple-A to push back his free agency clock, and he might be held back until mid-June, depending on how he’s performing and the Rays’ needs in right field.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark today mentioned Michael Bourn as a possibility for the Rays, as unlikely as that would seem to be. Not only would he blow up their budget, but he’d also cost them their first-round pick. Scott Hairston would seem to be a nice fit as a starter early who can be eased into a reserve role when Myers comes up, but the Rays haven’t been mentioned in connection with him. Perhaps they think Guyer is his equal. Still, even if the the Rays do opt to go with a Guyer-Jennings-Joyce outfield, they’re going to need a…

Designated hitter: In recently posting a Rays depth chart, I put Ryan Roberts at DH for lack of any better alternatives. It shouldn’t be difficult to do better there, though. Tampa Bay could re-sign Luke Scott to DH against right-handers after he hit .229/.285/.439 for them last season. Travis Hafner and Jim Thome are alternatives there, but they’re pure DHs incapable of playing elsewhere. Scott can at least play a passable first base and perhaps still left field when healthy.

One alternative here would be to sign Kelly Johnson, put Zobrist in right field and use Joyce primarily at DH.

Bullpen: The Rays have only three sure things for the pen right now: Fernando Rodney, Jake McGee and Joel Peralta. They’ll probably stick Hernandez there initially, and they do have some adequate holdovers in Cesar Ramos and Brandon Gomes, plus guys with upside like Josh Lueke, Dane De La Rosa and Frank De Los Santos. Still, one imagines they have their eyes on a couple of cheap veterans who might be candidates for turnarounds. No teams are beating down the doors of Francisco Rodriguez,  Matt Capps and Ramon Ramirez at the moment. And then there’s Hideki Okajima, who wants to return to the U.S. after a terrific season in Japan. The Rays could also consider trading Jeff Niemann for bullpen help.

Report: Jose Ramirez close to four-year extension with Indians

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Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan reports that third baseman Jose Ramirez is finalizing a four-year extension with the Indians. The deal is said to be worth north of $30 million, and may crest $50 million if all options are exercised. While the extension won’t take effect until the 2018 season, it guarantees Ramirez a $26 million sum with two options worth $11 and $13 million and will give the Indians control of the infielder through the 2023 season.

Ramirez, 24, is entering his fifth season in the Indians’ organization. He posted career-high numbers during his first full season in the majors, slashing .312/.363/.461 with 11 home runs, 22 stolen bases and 4.8 fWAR in 2016. He’s projected to have a strong follow-up season at the plate and will likely see some time at second base as Jason Kipnis works his way back from a shoulder injury.

Although 2016 only showcased the beginning of Ramirez’s success with the club, FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman says it’s a standard move for Cleveland to “sign their stars early,” and indicates that Ramirez was rumored to want the deal. Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors adds that the extension will keep Ramirez under club control through three arbitration-eligible years and one year of potential free agency.

Diamondbacks return Rule 5 pick Tyler Jones to Yankees

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Diamondbacks’ right-hander Tyler Jones is headed back to the Yankees, the teams announced on Friday. The Diamondbacks had previously selected Jones in the Rule 5 draft last December, but elected to leave the 27-year-old off of their 40-man roster heading into the 2017 season. Rule 5 draft rules stipulate that when a player is not kept on the receiving team’s roster, the player must be offered back to his original team.

Jones signed a minor league contract with the Yankees prior to the 2016 season. He pitched to an impressive 2.17 ERA, 2.2 BB/9 and 13.2 SO/9 over 45 2/3 innings with Double-A Trenton, but was unable to make the leap to Triple-A or beyond during his stay with the organization.

Jones’ outlook with the Diamondbacks appeared slightly more promising. GM Mike Hazen described the righty as a power arm with a “good fastball and power curveball” after selecting him in the Rule 5 draft, and early reports indicated that Jones would be in the mix for a bullpen spot. A rough spring performance — underscored by his lack of experience at the Triple-A and major league levels — undid most of that confidence, however, and the Diamondbacks weren’t willing to keep him on the active roster throughout the entire 2017 season in order to acquire his control rights.

Jones is set to open the season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, per a report from the Yankees.