If I were to describe the difference between this offseason and the last for the Tampa Bay Rays using one word, that word would be transparency.
One of the things we knew going into November was that the team were looking to upgrade over incumbent first baseman/DH CJ Cron, and while they’re not short of internal options, Rays senior VP of baseball ops Chaim Bloom has been shopping. And from what we’ve seen, he’s not just shopping at the Dollar Store. So far, the Rays have been linked to names such as:
#Rays have maintained "running dialogue" and discussed some parameters with free-agent DH Nelson Cruz. Agent Bryce Dixon says Cruz very much interested, calls it "a perfect fit.'' BUT ... Cruz has 3-4 other teams interested, #Rays looking at other options besides a DH-only bat.— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) December 11, 2018
...and Jose Martinez, in possibly my favorite tweet of the hot stove season:
(not a real website)
And those are just the guys who are still available. Before they were taken off the board, the Rays presumably made passes at both Andrew McCutchen and Josh Donaldson.
Most recently another name has emerged: recent Seattle Mariners acquisition Carlos Santana.
The Mariners acquired Santana before the ink was dry on the blockbuster deal that sent Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to the Mets. They also received post hype prospect JP Crawford from the Phillies in the deal, sending shortstop Jean Segura and relievers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos back east.
But now, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, eager to ‘re-imagine his roster’—part of which includes shedding payroll—has a Carlos Santana-sized hole burning in his wallet. And he appears motivated to move the slugger.
And the Rays are interested
#Rays continue to explore multiple opportunities. Among them, per sources: Free-agent RHP Charlie Morton, DH Nelson Cruz, even a trade for #Mariners’ Carlos Santana (though finances would make it difficult). Active club.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 11, 2018
Before 2018, Santana was a remarkably consistent hitter for the Indians, putting up a .249/.363/.449 slash in his 7 full seasons there, good for a 120 OPS+. During his Tribe years, he also averaged 24 home runs and 98 walks, altogether netting him of 3.5 oWAR (Baseball-Reference) per season. His 2017 season slash of .249/.363/.445 closely mirrored that of his 7 year average, and it ultimately got him a pretty good payday, when he signed with Philadelphia that offseason for the tune of 3 years and $60MM (including a $10MM signing bonus).
But the Phil’s parted ways after just one season, citing the need to move phenom Rhys Hoskins back to first base, as well as what appeared to be a decline in production.
Much of Santana’s (relatively) paltry .229/.352/.414 slash resulted from a poor start to the season when he OPS’d .571 in the month of April. In the 2nd half of ‘18, he slashed—wait for it—.256/.353/.440. If that sounds familiar by now, it certainly should. Going a little further, his walk rate (4th best in baseball) and strikeout rate (13.7) were both better than his ‘17 totals. The only three players in baseball with more walks than strikeouts were Jose Ramirez, Santana, Alex Bregman and Joey Votto—good company.
Going even further, his exit velocity (88.9) and hard hit % (40.1), were also superior, albeit similar. His xwOBA of .350 paint a much better picture of his season than his actual wOBA of .333.
Because of this, Steamer projects a positive regression in 2019, pegging Santana for a .241/.357/.441 slash—right back to his career norm. His projected 123 wRC+ is also superior to those of fellow targets Encarnacion (118) and Martinez (117), but less than Cruz (132).
Age and money are factors as well
Encarnacion and Cruz had better seasons in ‘18, but it’s harder to predict what they may produce at their advanced ages next season, 36 and 38, respectively. Santana is no youngster himself, set play his age 33 year in ‘19, but unlike the others, his walk to strikeout skill set trended in the right direction, making his production both more projectable and sustainable over the next two years.
If we factor in contracts, we see that Martinez is pre-arbitration for one more year, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30, and while he’s put up two solid major league campaigns at the plate, there’s far less of a track record for a guy at his age. If you add in the DH penalty, an unproven element for the National League hitter, his future doesn’t shine quite as bright as his perceived ‘surplus vale.’
Which brings me back to Santana, Encarnacion and Cruz. To nab any one of those three, the Rays would certainly need to pay near full retail. Santana is owed roughly $35MM over the next two years (with an option for 2021), while Encarnacion is owed $40MM over the same time frame (though we can safely assume that each team would send some cash in a deal). MLB Trade Rumors predicted a 2 year/$30MM contract for Cruz, but with at least four teams (including the Rays) bidding for his services, that number is more like to go north than south. With that, Santana’s deal may be the most palatable, especially for a two year commitment.
Taking on a contract like any of those may not seem like the Rays way, but with a sub $30MM payroll and a thirst to win NOW, the aforementioned surplus value seems a little less important, if only in this instance. Any one of Cruz, Encarnacion or Santana fill their need of a right-handed ‘feared’ hitter (switch hitter in Santana’s case). And while the other two might have more upside, they may also have more risk, mostly due to their age. Santana, on the other hand, is younger, more projectable, and, best of all, cheaper.
With Cruz looking to make his choice soon, it appears he is atop the Rays list. But if he goes elsewhere, Santana could be plan B.