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It’s Sink or Swim for Matt Duffy

New year, same story: Health is the big question.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

At the last minute of the 2016 trade deadline, the Rays traded LHP Matt Moore for prospect Lucius Fox, Michael Santos, and big leaguer Matt Duffy.

Duffy was coming off a surprising rookie year in which he finished 2nd in ROTY voting, losing only to Kris Bryant. At the time of the trade, Duffy was hitting .253/.313/.358 good for 83 wRC+ and 0.9 fWAR. He would go .278/.300/.355 for the rest of the year on the Rays.

Since then? We haven’t seen much of Matt Duffy.

When the Rays acquired the San Francisco shortstop, this is what Matt Silverman had to say:

“We think he is going to be a very good shortstop for us [...] Last year, one of the top rookies in the National League. And was off to a great year this year before the Achilles injury. ... Just someone who can fortify our infield up the middle. That defense is critical for the success we’re going to have going forward. And to have another young infielder that can be a part of the team’s future was something that was a big part of the trade today.”

Since when does everything go according to plan?

After losing all of 2017 to a left heel injury, Duffy came into 2018 camp ready to fill large shoes left by the trade of Evan Longoria. Duffy had a semi-healthy year, participating in 136 games and accumulating over 500 PA where he posted .294/.361/.366, 103 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR (!). Duffy only hit 4 HR last year, but he had career best walk rate at 8.8%, and made contact on 84% of his pitches both inside and outside the zone.

Coming into 2019 Matt Duffy looked ready to take on the year. He had added 25 pounds in muscle to hopefully help with longevity throughout the year. However, Duffy has spent most of Spring Training with a hamstring injury and won’t make the Opening Day roster.

His best position remains third base, but competition for that spot is fiercer now than ever.

Does he still have a place on the Rays?

Finding a spot

When Duffy does return at full health, he should see time at 3B with some time in the outfield, according to Kevin Cash.

Which makes sense, with the only lock of Adames at SS, the Rays are planning to deploy a combination of Wendle, Brandon Lowe and Robertson at 2B, and Choi, Diaz, and Lowe at 1B with a possible mid season appearance of Nate Lowe. The positional flexibility plays an important part in keeping everyone healthy and sharp.

The Rays also planned very well in regards to their infield health. With Duffy’s starting the year on the IL, and Daniel Robertson having thumb surgery at the end of 2018, it is important to have other players slide in without missing a beat.

Running out of Room

Duffy just finished his 2nd go through of arbitration and made a comfortable $2.75 million according to Sports Trac. That salary is well spent even with Duffy spending time on the IL and possibly staring out as a bench player. When you take into account Duffy’s veteran leadership in the clubhouse to younger players like Daniel Robertson, it is almost a no-brainer.

As nice it would be, the Rays don’t pay people to be clubhouse leaders.

They spent $4 million dollars on Carlos Gomez, who was a phenomenal leader and left an indellible impact on players like Adames. He had that marvelous walk off, but the Rays didn’t reach out to bring him back. That might be due to not having room in the OF, or that they didn’t like his production (Gomez only had 80 wRC+ and -0.5 fWAR), instead using $3.5 million to sign Avisail Garcia as a hedge on bringing an inexperienced player to RF.

The same could be said for Duffy with regards to production, although when healthy Duffy is a much better player than Gomez — and possibly most other options the Rays have in the IF except for Adames.

In 2019, ZiPS projects Duffy to play in 127 Games and accumulate over 500 PA. Steamer isn’t as optimistic with Duffy’s health and projects Duffy only appearing in 93 games with 394 PA.

But both projection systems do think Duffys production will be about the same in those PAs. Steamer is saying Duffy will have a line of .271/.334/.379 with a cool 99 wRC+ and 1.5 fWAR; ZiPS has Duffy at .272/.330/.368 with a slightly less 95 wRC+, but a better fWAR of 1.9.

The only time Duffy posted a wRC+ lower than league average of 100 was in his injury riddled 2016 (82 wRC+) and when he first broke into the league in 2014 (75 wRC+ in 34 games. If you’re betting, you take the over, and that’s a worthwhile hitter for the Rays.

If Duffy isn’t fully healthy this season, and still has lingering problems with his heel or hamstring, it will be very hard for the Rays to justify giving him another raise in his 2nd year of arbitration.

A fully or even a mostly healthy Matt Duffy, with a league average bat and lets say average defense (-4 Defensive Runs Saved and 3.6 runs above average in Ultimate Zone Rating) will be a solid veteran presence in the Rays clubhouse and lineup, and will give the Rays the best chance to push for the playoffs.

He just has to, ya know, take the field.