The Rays have been one of the busiest and most aggressive teams on the trade market this off season. The hitters they've added project to help them get more runs across the plate. Yet there are still some roster issues to sort out.
Tops on that list is the glut of players set to split time between 1B and DH. Even if Richie Shaffer starts the season in AAA, we still have James Loney, Steve Pearce, and Logan Morrison. While it's possible that Pearce and Morrison can also play some LF, but that sends Corey Dickerson the DH, which doesn't only shifts the surplus between these positions.
The Rays also have some decisions to make in the outfield, where Dickerson is expected to be joined by Desmond Jennings in left field, alongside CF Kevin Kiermaier and RF Steve Souza. This leaves Brandon Guyer and Mikie Mahtook as players who, for now, are expected to battle for playing time as 5th outfielders.
Something's got to give, but what? It's doubtful that the Rays acquired Morrison and Pearce only to deal them to another team. Most likely the Rays would want to unload James Loney following his injury-riddled and unproductive 2015.
On the outfield side of things, it's a lot murkier. Jennings, Guyer and Mahtook are the most expendable, with the latter two probably having the most trade value. Jennings is set to make $3.3M in 2016, which isn't much if he comes close to his potential, but is a lot if he continues to lose time to injury. He has one more year of arbitration remaining, after which he'll become a free agent. As a Boras client, it's extremely unlikely he'll remain with the Rays.
The Rays could deal them separately, but with Loney's trade value so low and salary cost so high, the best chance the Rays have of getting a decent return is to combine them in trade, with prospect(s) as required.
Jennings vs Fowler
Selling Jennings to most teams may be hard to do at the moment, but there's a case to be made for some interest in him for 2016 and ownership have stated they're open to dealing outfield depth.
When someone like Dexter Fowler remains a free agent so far into the off season, you know teams are playing hard ball, or at the least are reluctant to commit the years and include the clauses that players want. Fowler was expected to land a deal in the range of 4-years and $60M according to MLBTR. Seems teams may be willing to make a deal if they're able to land a similar at the fraction of the cost, right?
Here's a quick comparison of his 2015 season and the 2013-2014 seasons for Jennings since they were his last full seasons:
The similarities between Jennings in 2013 and Fowler in 2015 are uncanny, making a sale of Jennings and his tool set an intriguing case. It's also interesting that the 2014 results for Jennings added up to the same WAR rating as what Fowler managed in 2015. If only the story ended here.
Instead, Jennings has battled some serious knee injuries which kept him out of most of the 2015 season. The sole encouraging part of his season was that when he was healthy in August, he managed to hit safely in 8 of 10 games played, hitting .353/.361/.529 during this tiny 34 AB sample.
If you're an owner on a tight budget, trying to stretch your dollars and set yourself up to win without breaking the bank, do you pay up to land Fowler, or do you gamble on Jennings, bad knee and all, at a cost of $3.3 million? With the way doctors are able to rebuild knees when required, there's a good chance his knee shouldn't be as much of an issue in 2016 as it was in 2015.
That's also why the Los Angeles Angels, who are apparently trying their best to remain below the luxury tax, are an intriguing option as a trade partner for the Rays. And having already completed a deal together recently, one that saw the Rays land Steve Geltz for the now retired Dane De La Rosa, the two teams seem comfortable working together.
Angels 1B and The Pujols Injury
Someone as talented as Pujols doesn't just stop hitting out of the blue. He has a major foot issue that has recently received serious medical attention and should be "resolved" as best it can be for the 2016 season. You can sense the frustration from the fanbase - including our very own Halos Heaven - and from Pujols, who stated in 2015:
"Look at how I'm hitting," Pujols said. "I can't drive off my back foot. I'm using my upper body a lot more. That's the reality. But you know me. I'm not looking for excuses. I told you guys two weeks ago, I'm not going to throw in the towel on my team. I'm going to give the best I have."
Pujols recently had surgery to fix his plantar and toe issues and there are some who expect him to be ready to hit the field as early as March. It's an ambitious schedule, but athletes often push the envelope in returning from injury, so a March return doesn't seem like it's out of the question.
The big question is whether the Angels want to test that foot right away, or would rather start him off at DH. The Angels, who fancy themselves contenders, find themselves in a tough spot as a result. C.J. Cron is not a good 1B, with Baseball America once noting that he preferred to DH and focus solely on hitting. The lack of "wanting" to play 1B matches his efforts on the field, as he was rated at -11.4 defensively by Fangraphs.
On the minors front, the Angels do have Ji-Man Choi who they obtained in the Rule 5 draft from the Baltimore Orioles. Choi fracture his fibula in 2015, restricting him to only 58 AB and likely indicating that he'll need some time to regain his timing in 2016.
James Loney and What He Offers the Angels
After one great Rays season in which he was worth 2.6 WAR, Loney received a 3-year $21M extension which included a $5M signing bonus, a $1M salary for 2014, $7M in 2015, and $8M in 2016. The exact amount he is owed in 2016, according to Cot's, is $9,666,667.
Now you're probably asking yourself how Loney could possibly be a better option at 1B than Cron. But he is, for two reasons: he makes the routine plays, and actually wants to play 1B.
Fangraphs maintains statistics on how many times players make plays and separates them by difficulty. When we look at plays that should be made 90% to 100% of the time, Loney made them 98.5% of the time in 2015, compared to Cron's 94.5%. He also dominated Cron in the "unlikely" category, where plays should be made 10% to 40% of the time, by managing to make the play 25% of the time as compared to Cron's 0%.
What could also attract the Angels to Loney is that he's a professional hitter who struck out a career low 8.8% of the time in 2015. That led to a decent 0.68 BB/K ratio and a wOBA of .294 which at least isn't horrible. Also, Loney has a track record suggesting he can be better than he was last year. He's always been a decent run producer, reaching 90 RBI twice in his career, with some memorable clutch hits.
Here's one example of his being clutch, just for fun.
So Loney has great makeup, takes professional at-bats, has good run driving ability, and a decent overall hitting line. He can lessen the pressure on their star 1B who is returning from injury, and he won't take a long-term commitment like Pedro Alvarez would. Still, his wRC+ of 88, WAR of -1.3 and aging body won't make selling him to the Angels easy.
The Angels have been rumored to want to remain below the luxury tax, but Arte Moreno has stated that the Angels will spend what's needed to win. While the Rays are always conservative spenders, they are in fact well within their assumed budget even with Loney on the payroll.
If the Angels were willing to take on a small portion of his salary, there's a great chance the Rays would be willing to look at moving him.
For the Rays, this is less about money and more about roster composition and fit. Surely, the Rays are not going to hand the Angels Loney and $9M and say there you go, have fun! What the Rays could do is package Loney with another player(s) and/or prospect(s), such as the previously mentioned Jennings.
The Trade Options
The Angels have a glaring hole in LF, where currently Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry are set to split time. Many outfield free agents, including Fowler, have been tied to the Angels as possible options, but most seem to have asked for sizeable contracts and none have been added as a result.
Should the Angels look to upgrade in LF and protect Pujols at 1B, trading for Jennings and Loney makes sense. Jennings can provide a boost at the top of the lineup for the Angels as well. It's also important to note how weak the Angels minors system is and that any prospect they could add from the Rays would help inject some needed talent depth.
For the Rays' part, there are two viable options. Both are pitchers who are cost-controlled for years and would help strengthen a pen that recently lost Jake McGee.
Nick Tropeano | RHP | 25 years old
Tropeano isn't a reliever, but he could be used as a long-reliever in 2016, something that could benefit the Rays and protect against being forced to promote pitchers before they're ready. He hasn't surpassed the 135 IP in a season yet, and showed some signs of tiring in 2015 as his velocity dropped steadily, but he'd be a great addition to the pitching staff overall.
As a reliever, Tropeano would be very effective against RHB after holding them to a .251/.298/.378 line in 2015 and would allow the Rays to use Colome in a setup role if he earns that shot. He's unlikely to be eligible for arbitration until at least 2018 .
Jose Alvarez | LHP | 26 years old
As a LHP, Alvarez is an excellent replacement for McGee. He induces ground balls and rarely gives up big hits. The walk rate is a little high, but he's able to work hitters by keeping them off balance with a great slider and a 4 pitch arsenal as shown here.
Alvarez is going to be eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2018 and will be a free agent in 2021.
Other trade target possibilities include RHP Mike Morin and RHP Cam Bedrosian, who would both add depth to the pen but would need to bounce back from some struggles in 2015. For more on the Angels relief situation, watch this update from MLB.com:
Any trade between the Rays and Angels would likely include a complex exchange that would help balance returns to match needs on either side. There is, however, good reason to believe that these teams could be a match and may be able to work out a trade.
It's hard to peg exactly what a deal may include on both sides. With the Angels unlikely to take on much salary, it would need to be a deal that helps the Rays win in 2016. Otherwise, the Rays are better off allowing Jennings and Loney to boost their values early on in the season and to deal them once their value is higher - if at all.
The Rays are sitting on a great amount of flexibility right now. Not only do they have many options at 1B and in the OF, but they can afford all of the pieces they have, so there's no absolute need to make a deal happen. Still, it has to be enticing for them to unload at least part of the salaries owed to both Jennings and Loney while simultaneously boosting their pen's effectiveness.