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The Rays Uncertain Offseason Strategy

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The Rays have a lot of off-season decisions to make and with the amount of starting pitching they have to offer in a trade and the dynamic ability to move players like Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez around the diamond the Rays aren't pigeonholed into looking for one specific position to fill.

The Hot Stove will heat up over the next 3-4 weeks and we'll have a plethora of topics to talk about as each trade and free agent signing may change the outlook as to what the Rays may do with their roster. As we digest our Thanksgiving feasts let's also take time to digest many of the topics that have been discussed here at DRB and in other parts of the Rays as it relates to the Rays offseason.

 

 

The Rays First Base Situation

Yesterday over at ESPNFloirda Rays Insider Tommy Rancel explored the possibility of moving Matt Joyce to first base (story here). In the article Tommy notes the failure of the Rays to produce a home-grown solution at first base and he acknowledges the free agents that have worked out for the Rays including Fred McGriff, Carlos Pena, and Casey Kotchman.  Of course, with Casey Kothcman and Dan Johnson both on the free agent market the Rays do not have a first baseman to turn to in 2012.

Tommy acknowledges that the Rays could turn to Casey Kotchman, Carlos Pena, or Luke Scott (if non-tendered by Baltimore) or Andrew Friedman could explore the trade market to acquire a first baseman (such as Reds prospect Yonder Alonso). He suggests that the Rays will explore all of the aforementioned options but argues that the Rays could move Matt Joyce to first base. He acknowledges that the move is unlikely but supports his case as to why it would be a good spring training experiment in 2012 by noting that Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez have both spent time there in the recent past. Other pros to moving Joyce include his athletic size, ability, and bat profile as an AL first baseman, moving Joyce to 1b wouldn't cause a domino effect of moving players as the Rays have Brandon Guyer ready to play right field. Again, Tommy acknowledges the cons to the move by stating "it is a lot to ask a player to learn a new position at the highest level of competition with limited time to get acclimated to a new home."

Tommy concludes his article by stating that the article "is simply a speculative suggestion of how the team may be able to juggle current assists to fill a void without using salary or additional resources." So, as I respond to my objections to moving Matt Joyce to first base and suggest alternative solutions to the Rays first base situation,  I am going to provide reasoning that doesn't 100% fit the above statement. As a matter of fact, in order for the Rays to upgrade first base with current assets without using salary or additional resources results in moving Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, or Russ Canzler to first base. And in those terms Matt Joyce makes the most sense. 

I suggested on Twitter that I do not want Matt Joyce fielding ground balls at first base even during the first day of spring training (yes, using a wee bit of hyperbole here). Tommy responded by saying that wasting him at DH rather than allowing him to become a useful piece at multiple positions and suggested that this was anti-Rays. I suggest that not moving a player from one position to first base is more anti-Rays than my suggestion to move Joyce to DH rather than 1b.

There are two positions on the diamond that in my opinion should never be platooned and they are shortstop and first base.Two positions that are as far apart on the defensive spectrum as possible.  The closest the Rays have come to platooning at 1b under Joe Maddon was in 2006 when Travis Lee made 96 starts while Ty Wiggington made 37 starts, and Greg Norton made 22 starts. Carlos Pena played 1b from 2007 through 2010 and made 137 starts in 2007, 131 starts in 2008, 130 starts in 2009, and 135 starts in 2010. Casey Kotchman was the Rays first baseman in 2011 and he started 135 games. In order for the Rays to move Matt Joyce to first base Joe Maddon would have to first sacrifice a defensive component of his game and due to Joyce's inability to hit left handed pitching Maddon would have to platoon at first base. 

The Rays pride themselves on defense and run prevention. Matt Joyce may be able to handle the balls hit to him at first base but the nuances of the position will not be met. The ability to start a 3-6-3 double play, the 3-6 force out, knowing when to give up on a ball to his right and get back to cover first base, giving the infielders the confidence to just throw the ball without hesitation, the ability for pitchers to really fire the ball over to first on pick off plays, how to handle all bunt plays, and knowing when to cut the ball and when not to. The cutoff play can be argued is the responsibility for a catcher to call out. While this may be true through most levels in baseball the one variable that changes this in the big leagues is crowd noise. Often times a 1b can not hear his catcher or distinguish his voice and has to rely on his experience to allow the ball to go through to the plate or to cut it off and prevent the runner from advancing or taking the easy out while giving up the run. 

To fill first base the Rays way would include signing or acquiring a first baseman who can handle all of the defensive nuances that Joe Maddon demands of the position and be able to start 130+ games. Bradley Woodrum took a look at some of the first base and DH candidates available "on the cheap" in the free agent market (story here). Some of the candidates include Dimitri Young, Ryan Shealy, Russell Branyan, and Jack Cust. None of the names mentioned would be suitable options to fill an everyday role at first base for the Rays. Earlier this offseason J.C. Mitchell had a nice piece titled "Who's on First in 2012" and it is worth examining the article as well as the contributions from the DRB community in the comments section.

It would be unfair to just be critical of the names or solutions of others without putting my solution out there for the same examination. If I'm Andrew Friedman the first order of business I attend to is to rent a blue Chevy Malibu and head over to Carlos Pena's house. Park in the driveway with a boombox held high above his head playing "I'll Be There For You" by Jon Bon Jovi. Hopefully, that effort will result in an invite into the Pena household and a 1-year deal which works for both Carlos Pena and the Rays can be negotiated. Pena fits the criteria of an everyday first baseman who understands the nuances of playing the position. He may command more on the open market then what Tampa Bay may offer, he may be seeking a 2-year deal, and his production may see a further decline as he isn't getting any younger. I'd have to believe that Pena sees the promise of the 2012 Rays, believe that he would love to return to playing close to home, and would relish the opportunity to get back to the post-season and sees Tampa Bay as his best shot. Could these factors all play into the perfect storm to having Pena and the Rays meet on a contract that works for both sides?

If signing Carlos Pena falls short, I'd move on to the trade market and target a Yonder Alsonso, Brett Wallace, Brandon Belt, or Daric Barton. If the price tag for any of these trade candidates was too steep I'd certainly entertain bringing back Casey Kotchman in 2012. Earlier this offseason J.C. Mitchell had a nice piece titled "Who's on First in 2012" and it is worth examining the article as well as the contributions from the DRB community in the comments section.

The Shortstop Position

Yes, Reid Brignac was handed the shortstop job in 2011 and failed miserably. There is really no positive spin that could be put on it. He hit a paltry .193 with an OBP of .227, and a SLG% of .221 for an OPS of .448 covering 264 plate appearances.  How bad was it? Only Baseball-Reference Play Index and looking at players who had 250 or more plate appearances, played 50% of their games at SS or 2b, and had an OPS of less than .450 reveals only 7 players and the last player to do it prior to Brignac was Jim Mason of the 1975 Yankees. Brignac struck out 63 times while only walking 10 times and only had 5 extra base hits on the season. Although I was one of the voices which wanted Brignac sent to the minors in 2011 I am not one of the voices calling for the Rays to find a new shortstop for 2012.

It would be negligent of an organization to examine the 2011 results and make a call on Brignac. Some players have bad seasons where everything that can go wrong does. The bad at-bats add up and the player tries to remedy everything all at once. Sometimes, all that is needed is an offseason to get away from the voices of those who want to help you and to escape the voices of doubt in your own mind. Brignac showed in 2010 that he has the ability to hit at the major league level by posting a .256/.307/.385 slash line. and had 22 extra base hits in 301 plate appearances. 

Brignac's glove is good enough to hold down a starting shortstop job in the big leagues and his bat should be good enough to justify playing him there. If I were the Rays I'd give Brignac every opportunity to nail down the starting job in spring training but would give Sean Rodriguez a lot of time there as well in the event that Brignac falls into the same hole that consumed his 2011 season.  I'd also like to see the Rays bring in a veteran middle infielder as an insurance policy and to allow Joe Maddon more moves late in games.

Two players that fit the mold of what I'd bring in are Omar Vizquel and Orlando Cabrera. Omar Vizquel is no longer an everyday option at shortstop and his range is nowhere near where it used to be, but he still will make the play on the ball hit right at him, he still will know how to feed the second baseman on a double play ball, and he'll still be able to know where he is supposed to be on every play. Additionally, Vizquel knows how to play baseball the Joe Maddon way. He plays hard on every play, he can lay down the bunt, and he'll go and give you an honest effort at all infield positions (last year in Chicago Vizquel made 20 starts at 3b, 14 at 2b, and 9 at shortstop).  Omar is at the point in his career where he would be satisfied with an occasional start, will be happy to be a pinch hitter in a bunt situation, and a late inning defensive replacement. Vizquel played in 2011 with the White Sox for 1.75 million.

Orlando Cabrera like Omar Vizquel is a little long in the tooth as he is 37 years old but did play in 130 games in Cleveland and San Francisco in 2011 where he made 75 starts at 2b and 29 starts at shortstop. He posted a slash line of .238/.267/.307 an OPS of .573. Would Orlando Cabrera be willing to accept a very limited role with the Rays? Like Vizquel the legs are weak and the range is gone but he will also be able to execute all of the same things as Omar. His agent Dan Lozano negotiated him a 1 year 1 million dollar offer with the Indians in 2011.

Are you willing to give Reid Brignac an opportunity to win the starting shortstop position in 2012? Is Sean Rodriguez the main competition? Do the Rays bring in someone from the outside to complete for the position? Do the Rays have any interest in Omar Vizquel or Orlando Cabrera? Is there another veteran middle infielder who could add depth to the middle infield in the event that Brignac and/or Rodriguez struggle in 2012? Will the Rays turn to Tim Beckham at some point in the 2012 season?

The Catching Situation

The Rays have apparently signed Jose Molina as a free agent. Since appearing in 100 games for the Yankees in 2008, Molina has not appeared more than 60 games in any season. It can be assumed that the Rays view Molina as a part time catcher and do not plan on turning over the full time catching duties to him. This leaves the Rays with John Jaso, Jose Lobaton, Robinson Chirinos, Nevin Ashley, and Stephen Vogt on their 40 man roster. None of the group inspires confidence in me to handle a lions share of the catching duties in 2012.

Already this offseason the catching position has been busy. Jose Molina, Gerald Laird, Rod Barajas, Matt Treanor, and Ryan Doumit have already signed free agent deals while Henry Blanco and Brian Scheider re-signed with Arizona and Philadelphia respectively. The remaining catchers on the free agent market includes veterans Ivan Rodriguez who caught only 44 games last year and is 39 years old and Jason Kendall who missed all of 2011 due to injury.

Interestingly enough, Kelly Shoppach is still sitting out there looking for a place to call home and the Rays are still looking for a catcher to split duties with Jose Molina. Shoppach has proved that he can hit left handed pitching, has proven that he can handle the Rays pitching staff, threw out 41% of runners trying to steal in 2011, and only turns 32 in April of 2012. Would you be willing to bring Shoppach back in 2012? What kind of contract offer would it take to bring him back? 

The Outfield

It is my hope that the Rays do not trade B.J. Upton this winter. I would like nothing more than to open the season with Desmond Jennings in left field, B.J. Upton in center field, and Matt Joyce in right field. Of course, Sam Fuld will be part of the reserve outfielders but his use should be limited and the Rays should continue to look for a 4th outfielder. The Rays are fortunate to have the ability to move Ben Zobrist to RF and Sean Rodriguez to 2b when a lefty is on the mound but could the Rays find a 4th outfielder to keep Zobrist planted at 2b?

Some may suggest that Brandon Guyer is this guy that can make the occasional start in RF against RHP but I believe the Rays will elect to start Guyer in AAA and give him regular at-bats rather than have him be a reserve outfielder early in the season. Will the Rays look into a Reed Johnson, Andruw Jones, Marcus Thames or another free agent outfielder to specialize against left handed pitching? Without the Type A designation does Kelly Johnson make sense for the Rays as jcmitchell suggested (here) which would move Ben Zobrist to RF and Matt Joyce to DH? Or getting back to an original thought, would the addition of Kelly Johnson suggest a move of Matt Joyce to first base.

The Payroll

The Rays payroll dropped 40% from 71.9 million in 2010 to 41.1 million in 2011. Based on salaries of returning players and expected arbitration values the Rays 2012 payroll is expected to increase 27% to 52.1 million. A breakdown of the Rays payroll is provided (here) and a downloadable excel spreadsheet provided by Whelk is provided (here). Many have suggested that for the Rays to improve their 2012 roster that a salaried member of the team has to be traded. The names bantered about are James Shields, David Price, and B.J. Upton. The thinking is that the Rays will only have around a 55 million dollar payroll come opening day in 2012.  

I suggest that the Rays are in a position to take on salary and push above the 55 million mark and settle in around 60 million if need be. The Rays should remain focused on picking up where they left off in August and September of last year. The Rays can worry about shedding payroll at the trade deadline if things don't work out in 2012. The Rays can make additions to the roster by moving Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, or Chris Archer. 

Extend Joe Maddon

Of all the offseason maneuvers I'd like to see is the extension of manager Joe Maddon. I don't think it's fair to evaluate managers strictly on wins and losses since some teams are provided more talent than others. What I've always been impressed by is the ability of Joe Maddon to incorporate his full 25 man roster into his game plan, how the team never gets too high or too low, and how the team always seems prepared for whatever the gods of baseball throw at them.