Nearly a decade ago, the Rays used the first pick of the draft on a high school shortstop by the name of Tim Beckham. Because Rays fans will forever remember this as the year the team failed to draft Buster Posey, it’s easy to forget that they also passed on the player pundits thought could be the most talented guy in the draft, Pedro Alvarez.
Like Beckham, El Toro (as Alvarez is affectionately nicknamed) hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty expectations of his early draft slot, but he’s still outshone Beckham over the course of their major league careers. Now, in a waning free agent market, there’s a possibility that the fellow 2008 draftees could wind up as teammates.
Alvarez doesn’t top anyone’s list of attractive free agents, but he has the potential to add value, and could even be a better fit, especially if paired with the righty Franklin Gutierrez, than either Chris Carter or Mike Napoli.
Alvarez’ Advantage at the Plate
If you’re familiar with baseball (or the laws of genetics), then you know that a typical hitter will face significantly more righties than lefties over the course of a season. To confirm that assumption, I reviewed the Rays past two seasons along with the entire leagues’ past five seasons. Tampa Bay hitters accrued 3370 plate appearances against southpaws and 8747 plate appearances against right handers during that time, which is roughly a 28% and 72% split. This split in the Rays’ small sample size happens to directly match the entire league breakdown for all plate appearances in the last five years.
Given these ratios, a hitter who mashes righties will always have more value than lefty mashers like Sean Rodriguez or Brandon Guyer.
If at this point you say “no duh,“ don’t worry because I assure you that we are going somewhere with this. I’ve created the table below to display three free agent first baseman/DH candidates’ numbers against right handed pitching over the course of 2015 and 2016.
All three players strike out far too much, but Player B is obviously the weakest bat against righties since he’s failed to hit for average or power while producing below league average runs. Player C’s wOBA and wRC+ are both respectable but remain in the bottom half of eligible first basemen/DH’s to go along with one of the most egregious K%’s in all of baseball. Meanwhile, Player A performed admirably across the board highlighted by strong run production and a nearly .500 slugging percentage. He’s not going to be mistaken for a superstar 1B or DH, but this player clearly stands out as the dominant option against righties over the past two years.
It’s surprising to find that Player B is Mike Napoli, but considering he had the worst year of his career against right handers in 2015, those numbers can be taken with a grain of salt. He’s typically somewhere between Player A and Player C when it comes to right handed pitchers; regardless, the unquestioned best all-around option remaining on the market is only a possibility if a few other factors fall the Rays’ way.
As you may have guessed by the strikeouts, Player C, Chris Carter, has been a preferred option among Tampa Bay fans and pundits for the past several weeks and rightfully so with his talents against southpaws (Career 118 wRC+ & .344 wOBA). But is he a much more attractive option than Pedro Alvarez, Player A? Don’t get me wrong; Chris Carter is a better rounded offensive player than Alvarez, but I wouldn’t pay four or five million dollars more for the former in this market when the latter has a more valuable skill in mashing righties.
On the contrary, it makes more sense to add Pedro Alvarez at $3 - 6 million to hit righties and Franklin Gutierrez at $1-2 million to hit lefties (and do so better than Carter) while utilizing the remaining salary to bolster the bullpen. That combination of Alvarez and Guti could be the equivalent of a 127 wRC+ player being added to your team, which is approximately a 15% advantage over Carter in run production in addition to increased defensively flexibility in Gutierrez.
Shared Defensive Struggles
None of the top DH/1B free agent options will bring much defensive value. Carter is known as a liability. Napoli has played several years of quality first base, but looked like a shell of himself in the field this past season as his UZR/150 dropped to a paltry -6.1.
Pedro Alvarez’s ability to handle first base is still somewhat untested. His poor defensive reputation comes from his struggles to handle third base, but he wasn’t so terrible that a shift to first base seemed implausible. Yet, in his one season at first base, he put up an unplayable -26.4 UZR/150. The Orioles had such a quality first baseman in Chris Davis that there was no use risking Alvarez in the field, so he never had the opportunity improve at that position.
There’s no expectation that Alvarez will magically turn into a quality fielder at first, but 906 innings at a position you’ve never really played in the majors is an incredibly small sample size. Maybe an additional year of glove work will have him prepared to cut down on the errors that plagued him in 2014. Surely he would be capable of at least matching Chris Carter’s defense once he’s had time to learn the position.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, this decision is going to be determined by how much the Rays have to open their wallet to acquire a player. Mike Napoli’s search for a multiyear deal makes Tampa Bay an unlikely landing spot. Despite reports that Chris Carter was open to playing in Japan this season, Jim Bowden of ESPN tweeted that Carter made it clear he prefers to play stateside.
Free Agent Chris Carter, the NL HR King from last year made it clear to us last night that he wants to stay here and play in MLB over Japan— Jim Bowden (@JimBowden_ESPN) February 1, 2017
So much for his agent’s effort to increase his leverage after the Brewers reportedly declined his request for an $8 million contract. It’s difficult to see him landing an $8-10 million deal, so if the price drops near $5 million, it’d be low enough to make a couple additional signings (e.g. Gutierrez) to round out the roster.
Supposing both Napoli and Carter fall out of play, Pedro could be a fine choice for a one year stopgap at 1B/DH. He only earned $5.7 million last season, so at $3-5.7 million, the Rays would have significant flexibility to sign Franklin Gutierrez and bolster the bullpen. If he falters or is unplayable at 1B, they can roll with the internal options they are already considering while utilizing him at designated hitter. It’s not flashy, but it could be most efficient use of the remaining $8-10 million in payroll.