On February 17th, 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays decided to DFA 2017 all-star Corey Dickerson as a move to create roster space for incoming 1B CJ Cron, acquired from the Angels for a PTBNL. Let’s review these transactions now that we’ve had some time to let the news sink in.
We have acquired 1B CJ Cron from the Angels for a PTBNL.— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) February 18, 2018
To make room on the 40-man roster, we have designated Corey Dickerson for assignment. pic.twitter.com/wDK3sN7Yen
On the surface, this move makes absolutely no sense. Dickerson is coming off a decent season. He slashed .282/.325/.490 and made the all-star team. He was second among full-time DHs in fWAR. Fans remember when he was putting up great numbers as a member of the Rockies and how Dickerson was a key cog in the Rays’ pre-All-Star break surge. He’s being replaced by a pretty forgettable player who doesn’t seem to add more than Dickerson’s loss subtracts. It’s fair to say that the consensus around baseball observers has been that this is a bad move.
I’d like to challenge that consensus.
His tenure with the Rays has seen far more lows than highs. He put up just a 94 wRC+ in the first half 2016 and slightly rebounded with a 108 wRC+ in the second half. Overall, 2016 was an underwhelming debut for Dickerson, hitting .245/.293/.469.
His hot start in 2017, as we know, earned him a spot on the All-Star team. But his production tumbled in the second half of the season. On a closer look, that strong first half heavily relied on luck. He had a .361 BABIP in the first half, compared to a more realistic .302 BABIP in the second. Without his batted ball luck, Dickerson’s batting average went from .312 to .241. With his strikeouts ticking up (21.4% to 28.2%) and his usual dearth of walks, his slash line in the second half was a modest .241/.282/.408 and part of the reason for the Rays' second half swoon.
These worrisome trends which appeared in 2017 could give the Rays pause as to whether he’ll continue to hit while chasing so many pitches out of the strikezone. Despite a sterling 22.4% line drive rate, Dickerson’s xwOBA sat at just .307, compared to his .341 actual wOBA. Always known as a wild swinger, he chased a shocking 45.6% of the time at pitches outside of the strikezone. While he had success doing this as a Rockie, his contact rate suffered when he arrived in St. Petersburg.
Dickerson’s Contact Rate
While it may be a stretch to say that Dickerson is on the edge of a huge decline, it isn’t unreasonable for the Rays to believe this trend won’t reverse and Dickerson may end up not being worth rostering next season. Given the Rays desire for cutting payroll and abundance of left-handed outfielders across the organization, Dickerson was an expendable piece, even if designating him for assignment may produce a lot of head scratching.
The Rays front office could also view this as trading Dickerson for CJ Cron, who steps in as a possible regular option at 1B or DH. Despite a fairly mundane MLB career thus far (107 wRC+ and 2.2 career fWAR in 1475 PAs) Cron showed signs of coming into his own after coming back from an early season foot injury. After the All-Star break last year, Cron slashed .267/.326/.512 with a 123 wRC+. Compared to his first few years, Cron struck out more, but hit more line drives, more fly balls, pulled more balls and made more hard contact. If Cron can keep up these improvements, he could settle in as an above average everyday 1B. Morever, Cron is cheaper, has an additional year of control, and fits the roster better as a right-handed hitter who plays 1B.
Designating an All-Star is a confusing decision for sure. But given the market’s distaste for bat-first corner players and possible concerns about Dickerson’s long-term viability as a reliable major league hitter, there’s some reason for the Rays to have made this move.