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The Rays need a left-handed hitter. Who is out there?

Analyzing the lefty sticks on the market

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Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers
Joey Gallo
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

A few days after the Rays 2022 season concluded, Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash made themselves available for a media session to reflect on the season past and share ideas about the offseason to come.

First, it certainly seems that the front office recognizes that there is room for improvement offensively. From Neander:

“I don’t think it’s in us to just stand pat and assume things will get better. There’s an acknowledgement that, our standards offensively, we want to raise them.”

Neander also touched on the fact that young players may have been overexposed in 2022:

“Ideally, we find a little bit of a better balance (between young and experienced players). We don’t want to ask too much of too many who haven’t yet established themselves, but you want to give them those opportunities too”

The lack of production against right-handed pitching specifically was also a talking point for Neander:

“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a club that has struggled as much against right-handed pitching as this one did. That is something we’ve got to find a way to improve, and we faced a couple of good righties in the postseason and struggled with them.”

There were more topics discussed in this press conference, but these are the general themes that can help us try to think alongside the front office. The Rays are looking to improve their offensive unit by injecting more of a veteran presence in the lineup and by producing better against right-handers in particular. Given this, let’s take a look at the veteran lefty (and switch) hitters out on the market this winter.

Free Agents

Brandon Nimmo: There may not be a more well-rounded lefty bat on the free agent market than Brandon Nimmo. He plays a fine center field and has posted gaudy OBPs throughout his career. Coming off of a 5.4 fWAR season, Nimmo may be looking at 9-figure offers this winter.

Anthony Rizzo: Rizzo is expected to opt-out of his contract with the Yankees this winter and become a free agent. The 33-year-old first basemen is coming off a 32-homer season in which he posted a strong 132 wRC+ over 548 plate appearances.

Michael Brantley: The sweet swinging Brantley is back on the open market and was off to a strong start in 2022 before a shoulder injury ended his campaign in late June. He will be turning 36 next year and may be heading towards full-time DH duties, but the veteran has posted a 120 wRC+ or higher in five straight seasons.

Josh Bell: The switch-hitting Bell has a better career track record against right-handers than he does left-handers and is coming off a strong 2022 campaign. Bell has split time between DH and first base over the years, and he’s never been regarded as a strong defender.

Joey Gallo: The ups and downs of Gallo’s career are well documented, and his free agency will be a fascinating one to follow. He still plays solid corner outfield defense and has all the power in the world, but strikeouts have drowned his production. Could the Rays be the team that takes a shot on fixing the 29-year-old?

Andrew Benintendi: The 2022 season was the best version of Benintendi we’ve seen in a while. He pairs great contact rates with solid plate discipline and corner outfield defense. The 28-year-old owns a career 116 wRC+ against righties and is due for a nice pay day in his first chance in free agency.

Joc Pederson: Pederson showed some of the best quality of contact metrics in baseball last season, and his production (144 wRC+) certainly matched it. The Giants used him mostly in left field in 2022, but his poor speed and defensive capabilities may force him to a DH role sooner rather than later.

Michael Conforto: 2022 was a lost year for the veteran outfielder, as a shoulder injury prevented him from playing at all. He did receive signing interest from multiple teams this summer but opted to recover and set his sights on 2023. Conforto will be entering his age-30 season and owns a career 136 wRC+ against righties.

Brandon Belt: Believe it or not, Brandon Belt was one of the best hitters in baseball across 2020 - 2021. He unfortunately experienced an injury-riddled 2022 season though and will be turning 35 next year. After spending all 12 of his big-league seasons with San Francisco, it will be intriguing to watch what kind of interest he garners from different organizations this winter.

Others: Carlos Santana, Matt Carpenter, David Peralta, Kole Calhoun, Tyler Naquin

Non-Tender Candidates

Cody Bellinger: After his 2019 MVP campaign, Bellinger has seen his production fall off in recent years. He is still a strong defender in center field and was at least serviceable against right handers last season (92 wRC+), but Los Angeles will have to ultimately decide whether or not he is worth the projected $18.1 million he will receive in his final arbitration year.

Rowdy Tellez: Even after swatting 35 homeruns and 89 RBI for Milwaukee in 2022, Tellez was only able to accumulate 0.8 fWAR, mostly due to poor baserunning and first base defense. With a 2023 arbitration estimate of $5.3 million, the small-market Brewers may have to consider trading or non-tendering the lefty slugger.

Ji-Man Choi: It’s worth mentioning that there is a corner lefty bat already on the Rays roster in Ji-Man Choi. However, Choi is projected to earn $4.5 million in his final arbitration year, and Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times has reported that the Rays are likely to move on from him this offseason.

Others: Dominic Smith, Franchy Cordero, Ryan O’Hearn

Trade Candidates

Bryan Reynolds: Seemingly in trade rumors every year, will we finally see Bryan Reynolds traded this offseason? The switch-hitting center fielder is coming off of yet another strong campaign and owns a 130 wRC+ against right-handers for his career.

Ian Happ: Happ was a hot commodity at the 2022 trade deadline, but the Cubs ultimately decided to hold on to their 2022 gold glove left fielder. Happ, another switch-hitter, has seen significantly better results from the left side throughout his career, but in 2022 his splits were fairly even.

Jesse Winker: With only one year of team control remaining, there is a chance that Seattle entertains trading Winker, who has reportedly developed a sour relationship with management and teammates in his first year out west. Even after a disappointing 2022 season, Winker owns a career 136 wRC+ against righties.

Anthony Santander: The Orioles took major steps towards competitiveness in 2022, but they still did show a willingness to trade away veterans with dwindling team control (Trey Mancini and Jorge Lopez). Could Santander, who is coming off a career-high 2.5 fWAR season and projected to make $7.5 million in his second arbitration year, be next on his way out?

Seth Brown: Brown launched a career high 25 homers in 2022 including a very productive 129 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. Oakland has been busy dealing veterans lately and the recently turned 30-year-old Brown could generate trade interest this winter.

Max Kepler: With only 1 year left on his contract, Kepler is seen as a likely trade candidate this offseason. He pairs strong outfield defense with a good hitting track record against right-handers (career 111 wRC+). There’s also a whole lot of red on his Statcast page, if you’re into that.

Others: Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Verdugo, Gavin Sheets, Lamonte Wade Jr., DBacks outfielders

The Big Fish

Shohei Ohtani: Back before the 2022 trade deadline it was reported that the Angels were at least listening to offers on Ohtani, he of course did not end up getting traded. Los Angeles was said to have an astronomical asking price for their superstar and are reportedly not interested in trading him at this time. Ohtani is a generational talent who is entering his final year of control for a poorly constructed team, will the Angels dare to open back up the phone lines this winter?