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Why the Rays designated C.J. Cron for assignment

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays, facing a 40-man roster crunch, have elected to designate first baseman C.J. Cron for assignment, likely ending his Rays career after one year.

In his first season of what was essentially full-time work, Cron posted a career best .347 wOBA over 140 games for the Rays, primarily as a designated hitter.

Cron’s glove is handcuffed to first base defensively, where he is an adequate defender, but not a player you wouldn’t upgrade (which the Rays did by promoting first baseman Jake Bauers mid-season). In 140 games, Cron received only 58 starts in the field.

The focus moving forward then is at the plate, where we should note Cron overachieved against southpaws in 2018, posting a 151 wRC+ vs LHP when his career was typically more in line with the average right handed first baseman. Meanwhile, his 110 wRC+ vs RHP was in line with his career performance.

Cron is an above average hitter in comparison to the league, but dependably average when compared to other hitters with his profile: a right handed hitting first baseman.

As for his overachievements, if you believe the odds of Cron repeating his 30-longball season are low, you’ll try to demote him further from DH to platoon-DH, which was the role Cron found himself facing last season after the acquisition of Ji-Man Choi.

The offensive struggles of Jake Bauers did add some give to that take, but with a salary around $5 million, the Rays were not going to make Cron the second highest paid player on the team to ride the bench while prioritizing a rebuild.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays roster is stacked with players hitting from the left side. To break into the Rays roster full time would require besting Daniel Robertson or Matt Duffy, or whoever else the Rays might acquire for plate appearances (more on that in a moment).

And given the timing of the decision, this was less about money and more about the value of the 40-man roster spot:

“This was a was a tough call obviously because of what C.J. did this past year and what he meant to our group,’’ senior VP Chaim Bloom said. “We certainly haven’t closed off the possibility of a return. But with as many deserving players that we have on our club that need playing time and also the number of possible paths for our off-season to take, it didn’t make sense to us to commit to him right now.’’

That quote is courtesy of Marc Topkin, who lists elite position players such as free agent Josh Donaldson, trade candidate Paul Goldschmidt, or free agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz as targeted replacements for Cron on the 2019 roster.

Of course, with roster construction the proof is in the pudding. Should the Rays fail to acquire an elite talent to replace Cron on the roster, the move could be all for naught.

It should be noted that C.J. Cron’s acquisition late last offseason was infamously the impetus behind Corey Dickerson’s designation for assignment. A Rays designated hitter for the previous two seasons, Dickerson changed his swing with positive results after being traded to the Pirates, and earned a Gold Glove in 2018 in left field.

This is not a Dickerson situation. The Rays clearly attempted to trade Cron and found zero takers offering anything of value — anything at all. Not a single MLB team thought Cron was worth anything of value to acquire at this stage in the off-season.

Cron will have ample time to find a job, likely in a month or so as a finishing touch to an otherwise complete roster. It’s here a reunion is possible should the Rays fail to acquire a more complete bat for the 25-man roster, and likely at a salary below his projected $5 million should that occur, but a reunion seems unlikely.

If his services had been retained, Cron was going be a distraction for Tampa Bay’s first base depth, which now includes the 40-man rostered OF/1B Joe McCarthy and Futures Game rep 1B Nathan Lowe in Triple-A, as well as two-way talent Brendan McKay climbing through the minors.

On a roster that features two other first baseman with significant promise (Bauers, Choi), Cron clogged a well greased machine in ways 30-home runs could not ply when prospects needed protecting.