The Rays have acquired first baseman CJ Cron, a right-handed-hitting first baseman, from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, for a player to be named later. As a corresponding move, the Rays designated All-Star Corey Dickerson for assignment, meaning that they have ten days to trade him before he will be available, on waivers, to the league.
This is an odd move. Productive players on affordable salaries with years of team control remaining do not get designated for assignment. It will make more sense if Dickerson is traded for something worthwhile, although per Marc Topkin, that potential trade isn’t worked out yet.
Sounds like #Rays don't have a deal in hand for Dickerson, but did the DFA move to spur conclusion of some trade talks. Neander: "We've had enough conversations where we felt this was best way to get things resolved for him and for us.''— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) February 18, 2018
But put the Dickerson DFA portion of this transaction aside for a minute, and let’s focus on Cron.
Steamer projects Cron to hit .257/.311/.457. Those numbers are still projected for Anaheim, and will drop slightly once Steamer updates for the Trop, which is seen as far less hitter-friendly according to Baseball Prospectus.
Cron can only play first base or be the designated hitter, but he’s defensively fine at first—not a plus but not a liability, and the trend on his defense is positive. Consider him average and focus on the bat.
While that Steamer projection isn’t very impressive for a first baseman, it hides a wide range of possible outcomes and a circuitous track Cron’s followed to get to this point.
A Pure Hitting Prospect
Back in 2011, the Angels drafted Cron with the seventeenth overall pick. He was a sure-thing (as much as sure things exist) polished college bat who could play only first base. That’s an unforgiving position to begin one’s pro career at, but Cron could really hit. From the Baseball America draft profile:
He doesn’t move well at first base and is a bottom-of-the-scale runner, but that’s all right because he’s the best all-around hitter in the country and should have no problem producing the numbers teams expect from a first baseman. Cron has the unique combination of pure hitting ability and power. He projects to be an above-average hitter and has legitimate 80 raw power on the 20-80 scale that translates into at least above-average usable power. He has great hand-eye coordination and the strength in his hands to drive good pitches for singles and doubles. He uses a good approach at the plate and makes adjustments well, so he should move quickly through a team’s system.
Cron reached his high point in the Angels organizational rankings after the 2013 season, when Baseball America ranked him number two in the Anaheim system:
Cron’s righthanded power potential made it a little easier for the Angels to consider trading Mark Trumbo. While he isn’t the athlete Trumbo is, Cron has nearly as much raw pull power and the bat speed to catch up to fastballs. He never has walked much, but he also has the hand-eye coordination to make consistent hard contact.
In 2014, he would get his first taste of the majors.
Failure to Launch
The Angels drafted Cron to be a middle-of-the-order bat. Those are high expectations, but they’re what first base prospects with limited defensive value carry.
Over 253 plate appearances in 2014, he hit a very promising .256/.289/.450, with 16 home runs - good for a 112 wRC+, or 12 percent above league average. That’s a good start for a rookie hitter, but there was reason to worry, due to Cron’s low 4 percent walk rate and high 24 percent strikeout rate.
In Cron’s 2015 season, over 404 plate appearances, he lost a little bit of power, which brought his wRC+ down to 104. There was a power rebound in 2016, while Cron also managed to bring his strikeout rate down to a respectable 17 percent, and the result was another solidly above average hitting season with a 114 wRC+ over 445 plate appearances. But Cron didn’t get the chance to build on his strikeout improvements: recovery from an offseason surgery, and a series of new injuries (mostly stemming from a left foot issue), limited him in 2017. He was average at the plate overall (99 wRC+), and he struck out a career high 26 percent.
What type of player you think the Rays are getting depends a lot on where you draw your endpoints.
Player A is a promising slugger, entering the prime of his career (he’ll be 28 this year), who has power and bat control, and who’s made big adjustments to cut his strikeout rate nearly ten percentage points over three years. If 2017 was an injury-plagued aberration, Player A is a player on the rise.
Player B doesn’t walk, strikes out to much, and gives no defenisve value. He has some power, but it’s limited by his approach. Maybe he should have been better, a first baseman who barely hits above average is just a placeholder until the Rays can find a real solution.
Both shoes fit. The Rays hope Cron wears the first.
Lower Salary Than Dickerson, More Team Control
Salary and service time matter in baseball, especially for small-market teams like the Rays. Corey Dickerson is owed $5.95 million for 2018, while CJ Cron is owed only $2.3 million. Dickerson will be a free agent in 2020 (two more years of team control), while Cron has an extra year left, hitting free agency in 2021.
Right-Handed Power, But with a Reverse Split
The Rays were a team desperately in need of more right-handed hitting options, with Dickerson, Denard Span, Ryan Schimpf, and Brad Miller all batting from the left. Cron hits right-handed. But he’s posted reverse splits over his career, hitting right-handed pitching for a 112 wRC+ (1050 PA) and left-handed pitching for only a 95 wRC+ (425 PA).
That’s weird, but 425 plate appearances against lefties isn’t actually very many, so I’d take these splits with a very big grain of salt and expect Cron to be a neutral hitter overall.
CJ Cron will probably never be the elite hitter scouts thought he could when he was drafted in the first round seven years ago, but it’s not hard to picture him outproducing his slightly-above-average projections.
As an affordable, right-handed first baseman with some upside - and three years of team control - he’s an understandable pickup for a team looking to rebuild its core.