Today we're joined by Tommy Bennett, a man whose writing talents are outdone only by his Paul Bunyan-like beard. You all have assuredly read his work at BeyondTheBoxscore and more recently, Baseball Prospectus. If you haven't, do yourself a favor and take a couple of hours out of your day and absorb the awesomeness.
Erik: What uniform will Carl Crawford be wearing on Opening Day 2011?
Tommy: Crawford will continue to be worth quite a bit into his 30s, and there remains the possibility that some team could play him in center field. I am reluctant to say this, because no one likes inevitability, but I think he would fit really well with the Yankees. Lefties benefit from the shorter power alley in right at the new Stadium, and when Crawford gets the ball in the air, he tends to pull it for power. I could also see him with the Giants, but I am not confident in their ability to identify the need. The Rays, I think, will happily collect their compensatory draft picks and use them judiciously.
E.H.: With Carlos Pena likely not returning next season, who mans first base for the Rays? An in-house option or a free agent bargain bin type player?
T.B.: None of the Rays minor league names stick out to me at first base. My guess is they'll identify and acquire a cheap free agent--it's how they got Pena in the first place, and its probably their chief comparative advantage at this point. I could see somebody like Garrett Atkins or Jorge Cantu signing for not too much money to play first base for them when Pena walks. The bigger name free agents in 2011 (Berkman, DLee) will probably be too expensive and may not be worth the money they get.
E.H.: At some point in 2010 we'll be seeing Desmond Jennings on this Rays team. The question is, when and in what role?
T.B.: That's a really tough one to answer. My gut says his bat isn't quite ready to play at the major league level, and he'd really have to impress at Triple-A to justify calling him up to play in a corner spot. Although I am confident he could play a good center field in the majors next year, BJ Upton is still a better defender. They could play him in right field and challenge the Mariners for best defensive outfield in the majors (assuming the M's let Michael Saunders play), but I think the production they'd get would be disappointing at first. The tools are excellent but I am not quite convinced the approach at the plate is ready for the big time. My guess is you'll see Jennings before September if Upton gets injured, but not until then if Upton stays healthy.
E.H.: Same question for Jeremy Hellickson.
T.B.: Hellickson actually got better as 2009 went on. Even if you ignore hits allowed (which were very low but are not very helpful in evaluation) and focus on the strikeout and walk rates, he's probably still ready now. My guess is he could have an ERA in the low-4.00s if they slotted him into the rotation for next year. I like Wade Davis a ton, but I think you're going to see those two guys battling for one spot out of spring training. If Hellickson doesn't win the job, he'll show up sometime mid-summer, I would expect. He's just too polished not to earn a shot this year.
E.H.: R.J. recently compared Matt Joyce to Matt LaPorta. How fair of a comparison do you think that is? And how well do you see Joyce doing in right field this season?
T.B.: It takes me longer to say LaPorta's name than it would for me to decide I'd rather have him than Joyce. LaPorta walks almost as much as he strikes out, and he's got just as much (and probably more) raw power as Joyce. Joyce, on the other hand, will struggle to make enough contact to leverage his power. However, Joyce is a far superior defender, and could be very impressive in right field. I think if the Rays give Joyce days off against tough lefties, he could hit enough to justify the playing time he'll get. I don't know if he'll be better than that.
E.H.: Pat Burrell has to bounce back...right?
T.B.: Yes. If Pat Burrell were a roller coaster, he would be very fun by virtue of extreme fear. The turnaround he pulled from 2003 (92 wRC+) to 2004 (113 wRC+) is a good comp. Look at it this way: Pat Burrell teaches left-handers a lesson, dancing a .269/.403/.513 two-step against them in his career. And yet, in 2009, he wet-noodled a .202/.336/.252 line in 143 PA against lefties. I'm just not buying it.
E.H.: The Hall of Fame results will be announced soon, and while I don't believe he'll get in this time, do you foresee Fred McGriff eventually getting Jim Rice'd into the Hall?
T.B.: I always liked Fred McGriff, but he strikes me as a Ray Lankford Wing kind of guy. He just missed 500 HR, but even that doesn't carry the weight it used to. McGriff never won an MVP (never even finished in the top 3), while Rice won one and finished in the top three two other times. I think it's dangerous to compare guys to Jim Rice, mostly because his statistics were not particularly excellent, but for what it is worth, Crime Dog had a higher career wRC+ (137) than Rice (132) did.
E.H.: You recently wrote about the back loading of contracts. Seemingly every contract that has been signed under the current front office has been back loaded (especially Evan Longoria and James Shields). Do you see this as an organizational philosophy mandated by the team's economic identity?
T.B.: I think back-loaded contracts make much more sense on the left side of the aging curve than the right. There are actually two reasons for this. First, for younger players like Longoria and Shields, their salary will increase as they can be expected to improve, so compensation tracks value pretty well. Contrast back-loaded contracts to players like Marlon Byrd and Jason Bay, who can be expected to decline in value as their salary increases.
Second, though (and probably more significantly), back-loaded contracts for arbitration-eligible players make sense because it allows the team and the player to lock-in compensation at a level similar to what might have happened in the year-to-year arbitration process. Both sides get cost certainty without transferring wealth from one year to another compared with the alternative, year-to-year process.
I am not the first person to mention this, but the Rays were very smart to get club options on the free agent years of both Longoria and Shields. I think for both of them, the talent distribution is somewhat bi-modal. That is to say, the odds are that both guys will either be basically worthless (because of injury or collapse) or they will continue to be all-stars. Either way, the Rays get a bargain, since they can buy out the options in the former case and exercise them in the latter. It takes a lot of guts to give so much guaranteed money to players who had just one full year (Shields) or just six days (Longoria) of major league service, but I think it enabled the Rays to get bargains in both cases.
E.H.: On Twitter (@tommy_bennett) you're known for saying "Player X, have a hot dog with me". Which Rays player would you most like to have a hot dog with?
T.B.: I mean, Pat Burrell is an all time favorite, so he could always have a hot dog with me.
Thanks again to Tommy Bennett for taking the time to talk with us. You can follow him on Twitter @tommy_bennett and read his work at BaseballProspectus.com