Even with Wilson Ramos in the fold, offense remains the Tampa Bay Rays’ top priority. Several potent bats remain in free agency, most of which are priced out of the Rays’ tight budget. However, one-year stopgaps that will require a modest financial commitment are possible.
That brings us to veteran speedster Rajai Davis. The 36-year-old outfielder has seen action in past 11 seasons and while never a standout talent, Davis’ contributions have been as reliable as they come.
Last season for the American League Champion Cleveland Indians, Davis swatted a career-high 12 home runs -— none as big as his game-tying, two-run blast off then-Chicago Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 of the World Series.
While the Cubs ended up winning the series, Davis cemented his name in baseball lore. The Indians, who just signed Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal are reportedly tight on cash. Therefore, a reunion with Cleveland is off the table.
Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun reported last month that the Baltimore Orioles have some interest in Davis. However, the Orioles are still looking at free agent slugger Mark Trumbo and other options, so Davis may be more of a last resort than a desperate need.
As the Rays look to add some stability to the lineup, Davis is somebody who can help in several roles.
Outside of 2015, Davis has stolen at least 22 bases in every season since 2007. Last year for the Indians, Davis stole an AL-best 43 bases. Davis became the oldest player to steal 40+ bases in a season since Ichiro Suzuki stole 40 bases as a 37-year-old in 2011.
Davis’ 365 career steals are the fifth highest total among active players, behind Ichiro, Jose Reyes, Carl Crawford and Jimmy Rollins.
Bringing in Davis would give Tampa Bay a speed element it hasn’t seen since the days of the aforementioned Crawford. The Rays finished 2016 with just 60 stolen bases, the sixth-lowest total in the AL. Davis also helps the caught stealing percentage; the Rays were caught stealing an AL-leading 37 times whereas Davis was thrown out just six times in 49 attempts.
Davis would automatically be the second-best defensive outfielder on Tampa Bay’s roster aside from the back-to-back Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier. While Davis’ glovework has generally been solid, FanGraphs has soured on his work in recent years.
Spending most of his time in center field last season, Davis posted a decent UZR/150 (3.6) but a disappointing number in defensive runs saved (-5). Just the year prior, Davis enjoyed a strong defensive season in both UZR/150 (15.0) and DRS (+6). However, those totals came in over 200 less defensive innings compared to 2016.
Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr. are not revered for their defense. In the case of Dickerson — who struggles against southpaws — Davis represents the possible right-handed portion of a platoon. The only other right-handed, in-house option for the Rays is Mike Mahtook, a career .195/.231/.523 hitter.
For his career, Davis has hit lefties to a tune of .288/.343/.437, adding to his appeal as a platoon candidate.
Davis uncharacteristically struggled against left-handed pitchers last season, slashing .235/.296/.374 in 179 at-bats. Against righties, Davis slashed .258/.312/.396 with seven homers.
Those poor numbers against lefties kept his season line at a pedestrian .249/.306/.388. Also, despite his career-high 12 HRs, his strikeout rate climbed to an alarming 21.4 percent.
Even though he is more likely to return to career norms, at 36, Davis’ offense will likely not trend upward so his production the last few seasons is a good barometer of what interested teams can expect.
Instead of being the visiting player who swats two homers in a random September game against the Rays, Davis could be doing it for the Rays next season.
The Rays would not pursue Davis as a full-time outfielder, but consider him more of a compliment to their incumbents. Davis’ salary over the last three seasons has been $5 million, $5 million, and $5.25 million; considering his age, a one-year, $5 million deal seems reasonable for his services.