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Why are the Rays so dang bad at signing free agent hitters?
Question: How do the Rays chooose free agent hitters? Their signings haven't worked out well the last couple years.
Answer (Ian Malinowski): Well, I don't have any inside information on the workings of the Rays' front office, but Andrew Friedman has spoken about his overall philosophy enough to give us a decent picture. It's not a question of using fancy statistical and computer analysis OR scouting, anymore. Smart teams like the Rays are all about using every bit of information available, and combining them into one overall picture.
Here's an example (and keep in mind that the Rays are probably better at this than we in the public domain are just yet). There are a lot of computer projections out there, most of which use some sort of regression. That is to say that they take a player's stats and then adjust them toward how other players of varying degrees of similarity have done in the past. Last year, the STEAMER projection system came out of relatively nowhere to beat all the other pitching projections. How did it do it? By including fastball velocity. So next year, when STEAMER projects Matt Moore, it will know to regress him toward other flamethrowers like David Price and Justin Verlander, and it'll come out with a more positive projection than it would based on his statistics alone. This is an example of scouting data and computer projections working together, and in one form or another, it's how the Rays work.
They have, of course, had rather poor success signing free agent hitters recently. There was a good article by Glenn DuPaul over at Beyond the Box Score covering their failures. Part of the problem is that the Rays haven't actually signed any high price free agents. There are some players out there who, barring injury, are sure bets to hit. Teams know what they're getting with Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, or Jose Reyes, so they're willing to sign them to expensive, long-term contracts.
The Rays aren't in that situation. The closest they came was the Pat Burrell two year deal. It seemed like a pretty good bet at the time, and in retrospect, I can't fault the Rays. Burrell hit before he came to Tampa, and he hit again after he left, but for some reason, he never could hack it at DH. After the experience of being stuck with an expensive and bad hitter, Friendman and Co. have avoided multi-year deals. Their thinking is that with a one year deal, if it doesn't work out, you can always try again next year.
The problem with only giving out one year deals, is that the Rays are limiting themselves to players with higher risk. Carlos Pena, Johnny Damon, and Manny Ramirez were all top hitters who were into the dangerous section of their aging curves. Luke Scott isn't a spring chicken either, and this past year he was coming back from shoulder surgery. One year deals are for major league players finishing off the end of their careers, or trying to rebuild their value. In essence, Friedman has chosen to limit the risk to the team by expanding the risk of any given signing. So far, his one year gambles haven't payed off.
One takeaway from Jonah Keri's book The Extra 2% is that the Rays front office believes in constant self-examination. If we're asking these questions, you can rest assured that they are too. Either they'll decide they've just been unlucky and they'll change nothing, or they'll tweak their evaluation process to better predict aging, or they'll change their entire philosophy, and start giving out multi-year deals. The point is that the Rays front office are not ideologues, and if they need to change, they will.