It is no secret that the Tampa Bay Rays are never going to be major spenders in the free agent market like their AL East Rivals, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Instead, this team is built on, and will continue to be built on, things like: the amateur draft, international signings and development, shrewd free agent signings, and the occasional risky trade. In the Andrew Friedman era we've seen examples of nearly all of these scenarios; the drafting of Evan Longoria, the signing of Akinori Iwamura, the signing of Carlos Pena, and the Delmon Young/Scott Kazmir trades just to name a few.
Much to our collective chagrin, not all of the Rays moves are going to work as planned. For every Pena, there will be a Hee Sop Choi. For every Matt Garza and Ben Zobrist trade there will be deals like the ones involving Dioner Navarro and Edwin Jackson that don't exactly work as hoped. To be successful, the Rays not only need to follow the good process practice, but they must also excel in spotting market inefficiencies and exploiting them fully.
After the 2007 season the Rays made a conscious effort to improve their defense. They sought out cheap and effective defenders (Jason Bartlett, Gabe Gross) and built an American League Championship team around it. Defense has always been an important part of the game, but after seeing the Rays blueprint for success, many other teams went into 2009 looking for that same success.
Teams like the Mariners(trading Yuniesky Betancourt and replacing him with Jack Wilson as well as acquiring Franklin Gutierrez), Rangers (moving Michael Young for Elvis Andrus) and the Tigers (Adam Everett, Gerald Laird) all improved their defense and their win totals. In many ways because of the Rays success defense became the new version of Moneyball. This past off-season, teams shied away from offense only players and looked for a more readily available and cheap asset that can be found in a variety of places. However, defense isn't the only efficiency the Rays have tried to recently exploit.
In 2007, the Rays took a shot on a rehabbing Al Reyes and in return received a solid season from the oft-injured veteran. It was no surprise when Reyes flamed out in 2008, but he gave the Rays more production than any of us could've imagined. Also in 2007, the Rays traded for another oft-injured reliever in Grant Balfour, who had been placed on a few scrap heaps before landing with Tampa Bay. The Rays gambled on Seth McClung's potential in favor of Balfour's. In 2008, Balfour exceeded everyone's expectations and was a top three reliever in the American League; in 2009, he regressed to the top 15 or 20. Of course, there are names like Joe Nelson and Jason Isringhausen that didn't work out as well, however, the process was and still is good. We should all expect the Rays to continue dabbling in the injured reliever market in hopes of finding that next diamond in the rough.
The Rays were used to selecting at the top of the draft before 2009. Under the current regime we've added Evan Longoria, David Price and Tim Beckham at the top of the draft board. However, in 2009 the Rays were faced with a lower draft pick for the first time in franchise history. While it was never publicly acknowledged, the Rays seemed to target "toolsy," but injured players, especially in the beginning of the draft. With their first four picks they selected four injured prep stars. Once again, the plan didn't work perfectly as the projected easy sign, Levon Washington is set to play at a junior college and Kenny Diekroeger stayed committed to Stanford. However, third round selection, Todd Glaesmann, is projected to be an above average center fielder or corner outfielder. Meanwhile fourth round pick, Luke Bailey, may be the most talented catcher in the draft. The Rays will have to wait a bit longer, especially in the case of Bailey, who already faces an uphill battle as a catching prospect, but if all goes well the Rays will have secured a few first round talents without handing out a seven figure bonus to any draft pick.
Yesterday, the Rays may have uncovered another market inefficiency by executing the first "sign and trade" that we've seen in recent baseball history; trading Akinori Iwamura to the Pirates for Jesse Chavez. As far as the trade goes, in a vacuum it's win for the Pirates. They get a three-win second basemen, who is signed for the 2010 season at well below market value. However, when you take the deal in context, Iwamura's days with the Rays were in the single digits no matter how you look at it and they were able to get something with everybody knowing that.
In actuality, it's a win-win for both parties. The Pirates get that three-win second basemen and the Rays are basically getting something for nothing. Once again, Aki is a fine player and worth every penny of the $4.85 million dollar salary, but the Rays have better and cheaper options in Ben Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac and Willy Aybar, who in total will make less than Iwamura in 2010. In return for a player that had as good of a chance as you or I playing for the Rays in 2010, they get a 26 year-old relief pitcher who projects to be at least an average middle reliever. Jesse Chavez is young, has had major league success and most importantly is cheap and controllable(with options).
I don't expect this sort of deal to become the norm in baseball because the system is not set up for many of these trade opportunities like the NBA. However, the Rays surveyed their limited options, and were able to trade a player who they had no use for and still get a Major League ready chip in return. They also save themselves the money it would've cause to buy out Iwamura's option.
Chavez may turn out to be nothing more than an average reliever and that's alright. He is under team control for five years and could fill a variety of roles for the Rays. If the worst case scenario plays out and Chavez is deemed a "bust," then all the Rays would have lost is time and patience. The deal from a talent prospective isn't extremely impressive, but the Rays finding yet another way to acquire useful talent without using a lot of resources is very.