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Rays 2017 Season Preview: Matt Duffy

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The former Rookie of the Year runner-up could be a key piece to the Rays lineup.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Pitching depth has always been a strength for the Tampa Bay Rays, which allowed them to deal left-hander Matt Moore to the San Francisco Giants for infielder Matt Duffy, 25, and a pair of minor leaguers at the deadline last season.

Moore, still finding his way after Tommy John surgery, was just 7-7 with a 4.08 ERA in 21 starts (130 innings) for the Rays.

Duffy, on the other hand, was nursing an Achilles injury at the time of the trade and did not make his Rays debut until August 12.

Duffy slashed just .276/.300/.355 in 21 games with Tampa Bay before the organization elected for surgery on his troublesome left Achilles, forcing him to miss the rest of the 2016 season.

In 91 total games last season, the Long Beach State product slashed 258/.310/.357 with five homers and 41 RBIs (84 wRC+). A far cry from his rookie season with the Giants in 2015, when he finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting to Chicago Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant.

Background

Duffy spent three seasons at Long Beach State University where he was a defensive standout in the infield, not much unlike Evan Longoria before him. His bat, however, was not as highly regarded, as Duffy was just a .253 hitter in 501 college at-bats.

The San Francisco Giants selected Duffy in the 18th round (568th overall) in the 2012 MLB Draft.

Starting his professional career in 2012, Duffy started showing ability with the bat; most notably in 2014 at the Double-A level, Duffy slashed .332/.398/.444 with 62 RBIs. That same year, Duffy got his first taste of majors, a 34-game stint which concluded with a championship ring as part of the 2014 World Series champion Giants.

Arizona Diamondbacks v. San Francisco Giants

Breakout

Pablo Sandoval departed for the Boston Red Sox in free agency after the season, leaving a gaping hole at the hot corner. While the Giants signed Casey McGehee to man third base, his struggles to begin the season allowed Duffy — who made the team out of Spring Training as a utility infielder — to settle in at the position despite being a natural shortstop.

Duffy had one of the best seasons by an NL third baseman in 2015; he had the third highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) among qualified players (.336), the third highest wins above replacement (4.8), the second-highest batting average (.295) and fifth in RBIs (77). Those 77 RBIs were the most by a Giants rookie since Dave Kingman drove in 83 in 1972.

Defensively, FanGraphs loved Duffy’s work at third base as evidenced by his UZR/150 (+15.5) and defensive runs saved (+11).

Colorado Rockies v San Francisco Giants

Also, in 11 fewer games than Evan Longoria that year, Duffy had a higher WAR (4.8 vs. 4.1) and a higher wRC+ (114 vs. 109) than his ‘Dirtbag’ brethren.

Duffy was the recipient of the 2015 Willie Mac award as the Giants most inspirational player. Additionally, Duffy was a Gold Glove award finalist and the aforementioned NL Rookie of the Year runner-up.

The Giants seemed to have their third baseman of the future.

Trade

The Giants were in need of pitching and while Duffy’s upside was intriguing, they needed to make a move. So they traded Duffy and his four years of team control (not arbitration-eligible until 2018) for Moore, who has three years of team control.

Coming off a World Series in 2014 and breakout season in 2015, Duffy and his aching left Achilles felt the sting of being traded by the team he enjoyed several early successes with.

“All I could think about was having to leave the guys,” Duffy said to the San Francisco Chronicle. “All the people I’d grown close to in the organization, having all that yanked away from you. I was so bummed. Those first few days were the worst.”

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After a 21-game cameo, Duffy underwent season-ending surgery, putting off his possible impact until 2017.

Looking ahead

With Wilson Ramos in the fold, the Rays’ lineup could be one of the better ones in the American League in 2017. As DRaysBay examined recently, this could be the team’s lineup in May or June when Ramos returns from knee surgery, should no further players be acquired:

  1. Logan Forsythe, 2B (.264/.333/.778, 20 HRs, 52 RBIs)
  2. Kevin Kiermaier, CF (.246/.331/.741, 12 HRs, 37 RBIs)
  3. Evan Longoria, 3B (.273/.318/.840, 36 HRs, 98 RBIs)
  4. Corey Dickerson, DH (.245/.293/.469, 24 HRs, 70 RBIs)
  5. Wilson Ramos, C (.307/.354/.496. 22 HRs, 80 RBIs)
  6. Brad Miller, 1B (.243/.304/.786, 30 HRs, 81 RBIs)
  7. Steven Souza Jr., RF (.247/.303/.713, 17 HRs, 49 RBIs)
  8. Matt Duffy, SS (.258/.310/.668, 5 HRs, 28 RBIs)
  9. Nick Franklin, LF (.270/.328/.771, 6 HRs, 26 RBIs)

Duffy’s versatility (experience at 1B, 2B, SS, and 3B) could put him back into the role he had in the beginning of 2015 in San Francisco. He could spell Longoria at third base, Forsythe at second base and allow Miller — if the Rays do not acquire a traditional first baseman — to occasionally shift over to his customary shortstop position.

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

FanGraphs projects 125 games from Duffy in 2017 where he slashes .272/.322/.389 with nine HRs and 52 RBIs (95 wRC+). If he can produce anything resembling that — or his 2015 campaign with the Giants — then Tampa Bay will have another solid piece to its the infield.

Duffy inspired confidence for the Rays infield in less than a month of work that had not been felt in years. With expectations at the plate for his position low, anything near 100 wRC+ is a win, and anything like 2015 is a miracle.