When the Rays traded Tommy Pham to San Diego, the team took a slight step back in terms of offensive talent on the 2020 roster. This trade set up a perfect opportunity for the Rays to get better on defense by acquiring Hunter Renfroe; can they improve on offense by adding players?
Erik Neander said after the trade that there’s “work to do in order to add to the offense;” no big signings or trades have come from the Winter Meetings but often conversations started there only bear fruit after everyone has returned home.
#Rays Neander admits that they have work to do in order to add to the offense, but feel like the deal gives them an opportunity to be aggressive over the course of the winter.— Juan Toribio (@juanctoribio) December 7, 2019
Let’s look into some of these available players and hope that one or more of them are on the 26-man roster in 2020.
Edwin Encarnacion, DH
How often have we heard rumors that Edwin Encarnacion is coming to the Rays? The soon-to-be 37-year-old is a bat-only option, but one that is good enough to warrant slotting into the DH spot on most days.
Encarnacion has put up a wRC+ of over 100 in each of his past ten seasons and being much better than the league averages for DH and 1B.
Since 2015, the first season of the Statcast era, Encarnacion has averaged an exit velocity of 89 mph or harder in every season, averaging 90 mph in 2019 with a hard hit percentage of 42%. Not only does Encarnacion mash the ball when he makes contact, but he gets on base without making contact, walking 11% of the time or better in each season since 2012, contributing to his career OBP of .352.
Steamer projects Encarnacion to slash .247/.344/.495 with a wRC+ of 117 and be worth 1.5 wins, which would fall short of his career averages of 126 wRC+ and 2.3 wins per season. Assuming a healthy full season as a full-time DH, expect numbers somewhere in-between his projections and career averages. Encarnacion is expected to sign for one year, with MLB Trade Rumors predicting him to join the Rays at an $8M salary.
Avisail Garcia, RF
When you lose a good player to free agency but have the money to bring him back, you should probably bring him back. The Rays are reportedly in talks to do just that, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
#Rays are interested in trying to bring back Avisail Garcia, who had a fine year for them in 2020. They also are interested in lefty swingers Shogo Akiyama, a center fielder, and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, a corner outfielder/DH type.— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) December 10, 2019
Avisail Garcia was really good in 2019, providing the bounce-back from an injury-riddled 2018 that the Rays were banking on when they signed him for $3.5M as a free agent last offseason. Slashing .282/.332/.464 with a wRC+ of 112, Garcia put up a solid offensive season while also playing good defense, recording three Defensive Runs Saved and three Outs Above Average in right field.
On top of a good bat and good defense, Garcia brought surprising speed for his height, stealing 10 bases last season and ranking in the 90th percentile in sprint speed according to Statcast. If the Rays were to sign Garcia, he would likely split reps in the outfield with Austin Meadows while the other hits as a DH, much like they did in 2019.
Steamer projects a wRC+ of 104 for the 28-year-old in 2020 but with an increase in hits, home runs and walks over his 2019 campaign. Steamer projects Garcia will have 510 plate appearances in an everyday role, up only slightly from his 489 in 2019. MLB Trade Rumors thinks Garcia will sign for two years at $6M per, but expect an AAV somewhere over $10M.
Shogo Akiyama, CF
Here we have one very interesting player. The Rays have been linked multiple times to Shogo Akiyama, a 31-year-old center fielder from the Saitama Seibou Lions of the Nippon Professional Baseball league. Akiyama is a free agent, so there would not be any posting fees involved if the Rays were to sign him.
Akiyama was one of the best players in the NPB, slashing .303/.392/.471 with 20 home runs and 12 stolen bases while playing in all 143 games for the Lions. Akiyama’s career OPS is .829 in nine seasons, and he’s walked 70+ times in each of his past four seasons. The big question is if the bat can carry over into North America, but the numbers are some of the best in Japan.
While there are not any advanced defense metrics from the NPB, Akiyama, who is valued for his good defense, held a fielding percentage of .990 or better in each of his past four seasons. He has only 21 errors in seven seasons and over 2,000 defensive chances.
MLB Trade Rumors ranked Akiyama as the 45th best free agent available, projecting him to sign for two years at $3M per year.
Marcell Ozuna, LF
Likely the biggest long-shot in this list but arguably the best player, Marcell Ozuna would be the guy to replace, if not exceed, Tommy Pham’s production. Ozuna and Pham have been comparable in each of the past three seasons, and Steamer projects them to have identical seasons in 2020, with Pham projected a better 120 wRC+ (vs. Ozuna 119) while Ozuna’s projected a better .848 OPS (vs. Pham’s .832).
While their bats are comparable, Ozuna is graded as a marginally better defender than Pham. Defensive Runs Saved had Ozuna at +2 in LF while Pham was +1 in 2019, but Statcast’s Outs Above Average has a much bigger discrepancy, grading Ozuna at -8 while Pham was graded -11.
Ozuna, who is only 29, is in-line to receive a big payday this offseason, with Fangraphs crowd sourcing projecting four years at $16M per year. Ozuna also has a draft pick compensation attached to him as he declined a qualifying offer from the Cardinals, but that should not matter much if the Rays are serious about improving the team.
Starling Marte, CF
The one player on this list who would need to be acquired via trade, Starling Marte is a quality player with two years of team control remaining on his contract with 2020 paying him $11.5M and the second year being a team option at $12.5M. Marte actually brings a lot more value than his seemingly high salary would suggest.
Since 2013 and excluding a suspension-shortened 2017, Marte has been worth three wins or more in every full season of his career. Marte’s value comes from both his offense and his defense, with a career wRC+ of 117 and not a single season with negative Outs Above Average.
Marte brings a lot to the table and is the player I want the most on this list. In 2019, Marte slashed .295/.342/.503 with 23 home runs, 25 stolen bases and a wRC+ of 119. Marte’s 2019 xwOBA of .361 was the second best on this list behind only Ozuna (and better than Tommy Pham’s .357), while his xBA of .304 was a career-best, ranking in the 96th percentile among Major Leaguers.
Defensively, Marte recorded two OAA in 2019, while in 2018, he recorded 10 OAA. Marte ranked in the top 10 in Outfielder Jump in 2019, ahead of elite defenders like Victor Robles and Lorenzo Cain. Marte also has great speed, ranking in the 92nd percentile in sprint speed in 2019, and at 29 ft/s, he would rank as the second-fastest player on the Rays behind Kevin Kiermaier.
Marte’s only true flaw seems to be his low walk rate, but with a career BABIP of .342, he gets on base by putting the ball in play. Marte’s average exit velocity is slightly below league-average, sitting at 87 mph compared to the MLB’s average of 87.5 mph, but that doesn’t hurt his ability to make contact and get hits, as evidenced by his career batting average of .287.
Steamer projects Marte put up yet another three-win season, slashing .287/.337/.468 with a wRC+ of 109. There is a lot of positive here with very little negative, and with two years of team control, Marte should be an affordable target for the Rays in terms of assets to acquire him. The rebuilding Pirates are shopping Marte, and Jon Heyman reports that they want a young, controllable catcher.
Steven Souza Jr, RF
He’s available, he wants to come back and he’s back to running at 100% after a season-ending injury in Spring Training last year. Ideally, if this reunion were to happen, it would mean signing Souza to a minor-league contract to avoid any risk with an injury as serious as his, but the potential for upside here would be massive.
Souza hits the ball harder than league-average, averaging 88 mph or harder in each of his past four seasons (2015-2018). Souza brings good speed along with a high walk rate on top of that ability to mash the ball. In his last season with the Rays, 2017, Souza walked 13.6% of the time, bringing his OBP to .351.
Souza was worth nearly four wins that year, putting up a 121 wRC+ with eight OAA in RF and a top 5 Outfielder Jump at 2.2 feet vs avg. Souza’s 2018 campaign with the Diamondbacks was injury-riddled, resulting in a paltry slash-line of .220/.309/.369.
Surprisingly, Steamer projects Souza to bounce back quite well with a slash-line of .243/.331/.450 with 23 home runs and a 104 wRC+ in 527 plate appearances, good for an fWAR of 1.2. On a minor league deal, that kind of bounce-back and value would be huge for the Rays.
The Rays traded Souza away thinking that his best years of baseball were behind him, but now the team has a chance to make a low-risk gamble and prove themselves wrong, bringing back a beloved and passionate player who, if healthy, could be a solid depth piece for the Rays as they try and make their way back to the Postseason in 2020.
Whether by trade or free agency, the Rays will need to add offense. These six options may not (other than Souza) come cheaply, but any of them could help gets runs on the board in 2020.