In March of 2015 the Tampa Bay Rays as an organization did something that likely had other teams and fans taking notice without likely realizing how far it would go with this strategy. The team signed ex-Braves LH reliever Jonny Venters to a 2-year deal that would allow him to completely heal from his 3rd TJ surgery and hopefully make a return to an MLB mound.
For Venters, the decision to sign with the Rays came down to this,
they have a good reputation, "Especially with relievers," he said. "Their medical staff is highly recommended." Venters summed up his decision by saying, "I felt like it was my best chance to get back on the field."
For the Rays, the decision stated at the time mirrored Venters’ thoughts,
Ok, so the Rays medical staff has a great reputation that apparently transcends MLB and they took advantage of that fact on that occasion. Would it happen again?
November 2015 - Rays claim Chase Whitley
While he was just claimed by the Atlanta Braves off waivers from the Rays, Chase Whitley was originally brought in from the Yankees in part because the Rays had confidence in their staff to bring him back to health and ready to compete asap.
The Yankees were looking to clear space from their 40-man roster, and the Rays jumped on the opportunity to add talent and future depth. But they also recognized that they could take this a step further, by trying to entice more players and pitchers to join them, including some stars that may otherwise consider coming to the Rays (for financial reasons).
Rays staff took care of Whitley, got him healthy, and in 2017 he threw 57.1 innings in MLB with 43 Ks and only 48 hits and 16 BB given up, good for a 1.12 whip. Rehab complete.
Now, surely when the Rays signed Venters and claimed Whitley MLB teams took notice but likely didn’t think much of it later. But when they signed Wilson Ramos, who was considered a top 5-10 catcher in MLB, all of MLB seemed to go “huh, interesting....what are they doing again?”, as did we at DRB.
December 2016 - Rays sign Wilson Ramos
It wasn’t just that the Rays signed Ramos which took everyone by surprise, it was how much they were willing to pay him during and after his rehab. After all, the Rays take budget consciousness to the extreme, so it’s not expected that they throw $12.5M, with $4M in 2017 and $8.5M in 2018 to a catcher that’s going through knee surgery (he tore his ACL and meniscus with less than a week to go in 2016’s regular season), and may not be available to begin the season.
Ramos also had incentives worth up to $5.75M, the possible total investment $18.25M.
That’s not the kind of money the Rays normally throw around in free agency, never mind throwing it to an injured player!
Still, it’s what they did, and later on in the same off-season, they doubled down.
February 2017 - Rays sign Nathan Eovaldi
Here were the Rays, grabbing a well established pitcher who once exceeded the 3 WAR mark from the empire knowing they could bring him back to health and benefit from a year’s playing time that they otherwise couldn’t afford to get from him.
Eovaldi earned $2M while rehabbing in 2017, and since the Rays picked up his option, he’ll earn another $2M in 2018 with another $3.5M available in incentives, for a total possible cost to the Rays of $7.5M.
Combined with Ramos, the Rays risked $25.75M on two players it otherwise couldn’t afford to bring into the organization in today’s market.
A trend was set, and an increasingly aggressive one. So who’s next?
Well, Michael Pineda just happens to be a free agent.....
Date to be determined - Rays sign Michael Pineda
It seems like only a matter of time before the Rays go ahead and hand Pineda a fistful of money and medical aid. He would be the 3rd ex-Yankees pitcher to make his way to the Rays to rehab, and who knows, maybe they get more aggressive with their spotless track record of rehabs in these cases and ask for a 3rd year option?
Perhaps, but let’s take a look at what he’d have to offer the Rays in the future.
From Brooks Baseball,
Michael Pineda has thrown 10,963 pitches that have been tracked by the PITCHf/x system between 2010 and 2017, including pitches thrown in the MLB Regular Season, the MLB Postseason and Spring Training. In 2017, he has relied primarily on his Cutter (94mph) and Slider (86mph), also mixing in a Change (89mph). He also rarely throws a Sinker (94mph). His cutter is thrown at a speed that's borderline unfair, has surprisingly little cutting action and has good "rise". His slider generates a very high amount of groundballs compared to other pitchers' sliders, has primarily 12-6 movement and has some two-plane movement. His change is thrown extremely hard, generates fewer whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' changeups, results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers' changeups and has slight armside fade.
In terms of value, he’s exceeded the 3 WAR mark on three occasions (2011, 2015, and 2016) and managed 2.2 WAR in 2014.
With 2017 being an injury lost season, we’ll ignore the WAR total, but it’s important to note that he almost managed 100 IP (96) and had a BB/9 of 1.9 and K/9 of 8.6 with a 3.61 xFIP despite declining velocity.
The other important note is that Pineda has surgery in July of 2017, placing his timeline squarely in the dog days of summer of 2018, right around when the Rays could likely use a shot in the arm.
These two factors (effectiveness and possible mid-to-late-2018 return) indicate that the 28-year-old Pineda may extract more from the Rays than Eovaldi did. With the risk to pitchers coming back into form being greater in general, it would also be plausible to expect his cost to be lower than what Ramos received.
Something like this may be in the right realm of:
- $3M to $4M for 2018 with performance incentives if/when he returns
- $3M to $6M (team option) for 2019 w/incentives to match value
Total value, somewhere between $6M and $10M plus incentives.
As previously stated, Rays could also pursue a 3rd season, but with Pineda coming out of such a deal going into his 31 year old season, he may prefer to test free agency at that point.
Competition for Michael Pineda?
Will other MLB teams bet on their medical staff’s abilities like the Rays have and jump on Pineda first? It’s possible, no doubt about it, but here’s the thing: could Eovaldi convince Pineda by raving about what his rehab was like (assuming he’s 100% happy with it) and make the Rays the favourites in the process?
This seems more likely.
The other edge the Rays have is their track record. Not only did they bring Chase Whitley back to health for 2018, to the point of another team grabbing him asap, but they also can point to Ramos who not only managed a full healthy season in 2017, but also got better over time as well as Eovaldi who is set to make his return in 2018.
Although I could easily be wrong, the Rays’ recent strategy, reputation, and positive experiences are what makes me believe they’ll land Pineda before the offseason is through. There is a chance he’ll price himself out of the Rays budget, but more likely is that his signing hasn’t happened yet because Rays want a clearer offseason direction before pulling the trigger and committing a significant amount to Pineda.
And besides, MLBTR’s predictions for Top 50 FAs has him landing with the Rays, so I can’t be too far off, right?
Do you believe the Rays will give Pineda a deal worth taking? And are you a fan of his addition if they do?
To display the possible benefits, here he is striking out 11 Rays hitters in April of 2017.