The Tampa Bay Rays are rebuilding. I know it, you know it.
On the whole, the Rays have been bad for four seasons, then they cleaned house of any player making significant money after 2018, and now they’re gearing up to promote a ton of prospects from Triple-A for the 2019 season.
But that does not mean the Rays do not — generally — have a competitive roster.
Carlos Gomez, C.J. Cron, and Matt Duffy are adequate replacements for departing veterans, or at least approximations for the previous position player’s best skills. Gomez has Souza’s reckless abandonment, and may prove to be the best hitter on the team. Cron is hitting longballs like a pre-hype Logan Morrison. The ghost of Matt Duffy has World Series-winning defense replacing Longoria’s Gold Glove.
But three weeks away from Opening Day, the Rays still having glaring holes to fill.
Following the recent Tommy John-requiring arm injuries to Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon, the Rays have announced there will be no fifth starter in 2018. The Rays acquired Denard Span and are betting on a renaissance in left field for the aging center fielder. Brad Miller required core surgery in the offseason and has barely played baseball this spring with a broken toe, making Joey Wendle the likely candidate for second base (which he might have been anyway due to the Rays’ proclivity to prioritize defense). Designated hitter is wide open for the riff raff of the Rays bench, with no clear winner. This is not a competent roster!
So when Neil Walker, a major league veteran who looked to be worth a qualifying offer, goes to the Yankees — who already had a full roster — for a mere $5 million, you have to wonder what the hell is going on.
We wrote previously this offseason that Neil Walker was the obvious answer for the Rays roster mishaps [Neil Walker is an inexpensive solution to the Rays DH problem]. Here are the highlights:
- On offense, Walker fits the new Rays priority in trying to limit strikeouts and emphasize contact hitting.
- Walker is one of just six hitters in all of baseball from 2010-17 to post an OPS+ of 105 or better and put up 12-plus homers per season. The other five are Stanton, Upton, Cano, Beltre and Encarnacion.
- Walker does not need to be platooned to be effective. Sure he’s been hurt before, but Miller is hurt now, and it wasn’t a normal injury last season (hamstring).
- An insurance policy is needed at third base, where Matt Duffy is seeking to play everyday baseball for the first time since 2016. A good backup is someone who both could survive without a platoon obligation and has the arm to play third, but all of the current answers are heading to Durham.
- Walker has seven “good” seasons, Miller has one and it wasn’t last year.
- Walker was going to be taking a pay cut, falling into the Rays price range, so he might as well come get every day reps in Tampa Bay
And now we know Neil Walker, who has been paid $28 million over the last two seasons, cost a mere $5 million for one season. That is barely more than what the cut-able Brad Miller will be making. All it would have taken to swap them on the roster was paying a portion of Miller’s salary and setting him free.
Neil Walker is such a clear and obvious upgrade over anything the Rays were offering at second base or DH on Opening Day (or backing up third or even left field) that it actually hurts to read the news he’s going to New York.
All of this means one of
three four things:
- The Rays considered Neil Walker for the 2018 roster, but sincerely believe Brad Miller will overcome his various injuries to be healthy for the first time since 2016 (just like Matt Duffy!) and put up a more productive season than Walker
- The Rays recognized Neil Walker was a clear upgrade, and offered him a major league contract, but the veteran player declined the Rays opportunity to have everyday reps to instead play a part time role on a more clear playoff contender’s roster
- The Rays recognized Neil Walker was a clear upgrade, but did not offer him a major league contract because it would cost $2 million more to have Neil Walker than Brad Miller
- [Conspiracy theory] The Rays recognized Neil Walker was a clear upgrade, but did not want to block the path of promoting prospects/focusing on the rebuilding objectives for 2019
At this point, I’m having difficulty deciding which option is the truth.
Neil Walker has a projected .343 wOBA for 2018, according to Steamer. The best player on the Rays has a projected .322 wOBA and, yep, it’s the injured Brad Miller. What the hell is going on!? If Brad Miller meant that much to the Rays, at $5 million you could have kept both!
For those curious as to how this would have played out, fear not. Rays fans will still get to see what Neil Walker can do, the Rays will be playing his team 19 times this season. Neil Walker will still get the cheers in Tropicana Field we were hoping for him.
He’ll just be wearing road grays instead of Columbia Blue.