The Rays 2016 season made clear that there are holes to fill, whether via trade or free agency, for the team to be more competitive next season. We see the most chatter about how the team might address their catcher situation: would they try to sign someone such as Jason Castro, or would they trade one of their arms for a bigger improvement like Derek Norris? Many have also talked about the need to add another proven arm to pair with Álex Colomé at the back end of the bullpen.
Looking at the Rays roster by value, it appears that a different position may be the one most in need of an upgrade: designated hitter. The Rays have a slew of bats capable of playing the position in 2017, but would a more consistent presence there help? Over the course of 2016, they had 16 (!!!) different players slot in at DH and cobbled together -0.5 WAR at the position.
Only four of the sixteen put up positive WAR as a DH: Brad Miller, Steve Pearce, Nick Franklin, and Logan Forsythe. None of those four played more than Pearce’s 12 games there because they were either utility men deployed all over the diamond (Franklin and Pearce) or because they spent most their time at a different position (Forsythe and Miller). The biggest contributor to the poor showing was Corey Dickerson, who played 61 games as a DH and had -0.2 WAR in that role.
So for all the fretting done over who the Rays will bring in to catch or how they will bolster their bullpen, the club may have a bigger question to answer: who will provide some stability at DH?
The most obvious answer could be Brad Miller. Although he only DH'd for 7 games (making it hard to make convincing inferences about his ability to avoid the usual "DH penalty"), he put up nearly half of the team's positive WAR at the position in that short time. He isn't a plus defender at any other position he played (he was worth 6.9 runs below average in 102 games at shortstop and 3.2 runs below average in 38 at first base, per Fangraphs), so maybe putting him in a position to take his glove off the diamond would provide value in two ways.
Miller appears slotted to play at first in 2017, however, after he was pushed there in late 2016 by the mid-season addition of slick-fielding shortstop Matt Duffy. With last year's opening first base platoon of Steve Pearce and Logan Morrison gone via trade and free agency Miller seems pretty set at first.
Without Miller to serve as DH, the Rays are left with a roster of role players to fill the position. This could include Nick Franklin, Tim Beckham or Richie Shaffer with the occasional starter needing to get off his feet thrown in. Two of the three players who got the most games at DH in 2016 are gone (Pearce and Morrison), while the one who got the lion's share, Dickerson, will presumably be out in left field for the majority of their games. Since such an arrangement didn't work for them last year, where can the Rays look to find some consistency at the position?
One possibility would be to re-sign Logan Morrison. He could slide back in at first, allowing Miller to serve as a full-time DH, fill in as DH himself (the two shared these positions when Duffy played SS in 2016). Alternatively, the Rays could make the decision to trust a platoon of guys like Nick Franklin and Mikie Mahtook to play left field, allowing Corey Dickerson to play most of the games at DH, similar to last year. Without Brandon Guyer around to soak up outfield innings in 2017, though, that might be a bit more of a stretch than it was in 2016.
Finally, the Rays could look at adding a different player via free agency to play first base or left field. There are a number of available left fielders and first basemen remaining in the free agent pool, the Rays would just need to decide which player would work best for a price that would fit the limited payroll.
One interesting move would be signing former Met Alejandro De Aza to platoon in left field with Mahtook. While neither is a particularly good hitter on their own, Mahtook is a career 0.276 hitter versus lefties (compared to 0.192 against righties) and De Aza is a career 0.268 hitter against righties (compared to 0.235 against lefties). De Aza could be had for a relatively cheap deal and it's possible he and Mahtook could combine to form a solid platoon, similar to how the Indians leveraged the combination of Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin, Guyer, Rajai Davis, and Coco Crisp to their advantage in 2016. Crisp himself is also available to sign via free agency, should be cheap, and has hit righties better in his career than lefties (0.269 to 0.257). Pairing either veteran with Mahtook could be a cheap way for the Rays to upgrade their lineup.
If the Rays wanted to go in the direction of signing a first baseman, both Justin Morneau and former Ray James Loney could provide good value. Neither player will wow offensively at this point in their careers, but both should come at an inexpensive price and have proven capable of manning first base in the past. Combined with what should be solid bats, they would be a good fit allowing Miller to slide to DH most of the time, and they could switch out with Miller when they needed a day off from the field. It's honestly hard to imagine, however, that the Rays would bring in Loney if they didn't think he was worth a roster spot last year, when they still owed him $8 million.
While other areas of improvement will undoubtedly be focal points this off-season, the Rays need to take advantage of the addition of Duffy and Miller's positional shift and shore up the biggest hole in their lineup: the DH. A little more consistency from that position, where teams expect to get plus offensive production, could help improve on their second-to-last finish in the AL in runs per game.