While most of the focus this off season seems to be on whether the Rays will trade big names such as Chris Archer and/or Jake Odorizzi, some of the smaller contracts - such as Adeiny Hechavarria’s - may need to be addressed first.
Hechavarria was the 13th highest paid SS in MLB, earning $4.35M, in 2017. The Rays starting SS is set to make $5M if MLBTR’s Arbitration Predictions article is correct. Now, to most teams, $5M is not a large sum. For the Rays, however, it represents approximately 7% of their budget.
While that still seems affordable on the surface, a team like the Rays that prioritizes using the most cost effective options at each position in order to free up funds to fill other holes. When Matt Duffy’s expected $900K award, Daniel Robertson’s league minimum, and of course the much anticipated call-up of top prospect Willy Adames. With these options at hand, why spend 7% of the budget on a player like Hechavarria?
Why the Rays should keep him
Hechavarria fans will point to his Gold Glove caliber defensive abilities. That ability is what earned him a 1.3 WAR rating in 2017 despite a shortened season, and it stands as the second highest rating of his career.
Here’s how his last 4 seasons look WAR wise:
- 2014 0.4 WAR
- 2015 3.1 WAR
- 2016 0.5 WAR
- 2017 1.3 WAR
Through that period, he has never hit more than 8 HRs, he earned a high of .145 ISO, and he never earned a wRC+ above 89.
The question is, to the Rays, is that level of production worth a $5 million gamble?
Why the Rays could trade him
The Rays are obviously big fan of his after providing a vote of confidence when they dealt away Tim Beckham to the Orioles for Tobias Myers, an indication that they had complete faith in Hechavarria’s ability to help them chase an elusive playoff spot.
As Chaim Bloom put it at the time he was acquired:
The Rays do have other options, though, most notably in star prospect Willy Adames, meaning they could trade him this offseason. Most teams now expect a certain offensive output from the SS position, however, and some are willing to get a notch lower defensive performance in return for a few notches higher in offensive output. Most teams may not value Hechavarria the same.
Ultimately, the Rays may need to trade him when Adames is ready, though, and still have competent shortstops available on the 25-man roster not named Adames or Hechavarria.
If the Rays wait too long, there’s no guarantee that anyone will be willing to take on Hech’s remaining salary or that the Rays will have an open spot for him to continue on as a starter.
Why the Rays could walk away
First, let us be hopeful that Matt Duffy figures his issues out and comes into 2018 healthy. We can take a look back at what he did before the injury and see what the Rays may be in store for should he repeat. Here’s what he managed over 2 seasons:
- 2015: 4.7 WAR with 12 HR, 12 SB, .133 ISO, and 113 wRC+
- 2016 (only 366 AB): 1.2 WAR with 5 HR and 8 SB, .099 ISO, 83 wRC+
Reading the tea leaves here, it seems that if Duffy is healthy and can work through some predicted rust, we can expect at least a similar and hopefully better performance to what Hechavarria managed in 2017.
The next options are harder to weigh because of their limited (or lack of) MLB time and varying degrees of support from fans and analysts alike. Some truly believe that Daniel Robertson deserves more playing time, and that if the Rays do decide to depend on him and Duffy until Adames is ready, there won’t be much of a drop off at all from what Hechavarria could provide overall.
Robertson’s 2017 season included an alarmingly high strikeout rate (28.7%), along with a respectable walk rate of 11.4%. He may have still been adjusting to major league pitching and to limited opportunities — he only received 254 at-bats, and his OBP hit its lowest point since 2013 as a result (.284) but had previously rested at or above .333.
Surely I’m not alone in being surprised that Adames never got a look in MLB during the 2017 season. Chaim Bloom was recently asked about Adames and whether or not he was blocked at the MLB level (great questions!) and answered as follows
It's interesting that you asked that. I was just in the Dominican Republic and saw Willy. He came over to our academy to talk to our players there. I think the player is always going to be the first driver of that, in terms of what he does on the field will tell us when he's ready, and when he's ready to bust the door down. There are other things that play into it, obviously. So sometimes it's a balancing act so you have lanes of opportunity for the guys that you feel are part of your future, and also so you're not putting them out there without a safety net.
Adames looks poised to be a special kind of player who can become part of the core of the team long-term and will give the team above-average performances both offensively and defensively - at some point.
That leaves us with the question: should the Rays spend $5M on a player (Hechavarria) who would block their top prospect from playing his natural position? With Duffy-Robertson available as well? Would you?
Let’s say the Rays do decide to forego the arbitration amount Hechavarria is awarded and simply walk away from him. Who is going to sign him at that amount? Is there a team out there looking for a SS that’s predominantly defensively talented? Perhaps a few, but not many, and I dare say that if the Rays returned to Hechavarria’s agent with an offer for $2.5M to $3M, they could still get him back on the field and at the Trop for 2018 while saving themselves up to half his expected arbitration award.
Conclusion: To Pay, or Not to Pay?
There’s a very good case to be made that by walking away from Hechavarria for a moment and letting the chips fall where they may, the Rays could not only stand to benefit from financial savings and sign a player in an area where they have a greater need (1B/DH/RP), but they could also be keeping a spot open for players that can provide similar - or better - performances at a fraction of the cost and benefit from the playing time that would become available.
At worse, the Rays get to see whether Duffy can stay healthy (and last we heard he’s expected to be fully healthy for spring training), what they truly have in Robertson, and whether Adames can play well enough to shift one or both to another position or role.
At best, Hechavarria returns for less than his projected arbitration amount and gets another shot at proving he deserves to maintain the starting SS role while Adames gets some more seasoning in the minors and thus makes himself a much more attractive trade chip.
Whether they can trade him to another team for some return or need to renegotiate his contractual terms, Hechavarria’s contract needs attention if the Rays are going to maximize their position in 2018 and beyond.