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Matt Joyce's breakout rewards Tampa Bay Rays' long-term planning

Matt Joyce, who gave the Rays a needed power boost late last season, has been one of the majors’ best hitters this year.

Associated Press

Matt Joyce, who gave the Rays a needed power boost late last season, has been one of the majors’ best hitters this year.

Expectations. We all have them, and we all react differently to them. Some people thrive on being the underdog. Others need to feel pressured in order to perform at their best. And still others find themselves unable to cope once in the spotlight.

Coming up through the minor leagues, Matt Joyce never had to deal with weighty expectations. He was selected in the 12th round of the 2005 draft by the Tigers, a point at which most future major-league players have already been taken. He did not have any one skill that impressed scouts, and he was not a raw player oozing with unrefined ability.

Instead, he was solidly average or above average across the board. He hit around .280, walked around 10 percent of the time and flashed above-average power and defense.

He rose through the minors quickly and saw some time in the majors with the Tigers in 2008, hitting 12 home runs in fewer than 300 plate appearances and flashing the selective eye that had helped him succeed in the minors.

But this is the point where the story changes. Going into the 2011 season, if you asked Rays fans what they thought of Joyce, you'd probably hear one common answer: Edwin Jackson.

Ever since Joyce was traded after the 2008 season to the Rays for Jackson, the two careers have been inextricably linked. The expectations that had never existed for him settled on his shoulders like a mantle.

Jackson was a 24-year-old pitcher full of potential and talent. He threw his fastball in the high 90s, and although his control had prevented him from ever posting an ERA in the majors below 4.40, many fans were loath to trade him away.

Joyce, on the other hand, had never been rated higher than the seventh-best prospect in the Tigers system and was only one year younger than Jackson.

So why did the Rays make this trade? Quite simply, because they're a small-market team that has to operate with a long-term outlook. Jackson had shown little sign in 2008 of fixing his control problems, walking nearly four batters per nine, and he was about to enter arbitration for the first time. The Rays had three more seasons before Jackson would hit free agency, and until that time he'd cost the Rays millions of dollars each year.

Instead of spending millions on a player they thought wouldn't improve, the Rays decided to trade Jackson for Joyce, giving them a cheap, talented player with six full seasons of team control left.

Since that time, Jackson has performed better than his 2008 statistics suggested he would, while Joyce took a bit longer than expected to reach the majors. Jackson harnessed his fastball and improved his slider, thereby lowering his walk rate, increasing his strikeouts and becoming a much better pitcher. And Joyce had just reached the majors last season when Jackson tossed his no-hitter against the Rays, rubbing salt into an already sore wound.

But consider this: Despite Jackson's improvements and the Rays taking it slow with Joyce, the Jackson-Joyce trade looks better for the Rays over time. Jeff Niemann replaced Jackson in the Rays' rotation, and he has posted a 4.16 ERA over the past two years while Jackson has done only slightly better (4.04 ERA).

Jackson has also been paid $15.5 million and is a free agent after this season, while the Rays are just beginning to reap the rewards of Joyce. Joyce was a huge power boost for the Rays last season, hitting 28 extra-base hits (260 plate appearances) down the stretch and adding some needed oomph to the lineup.

And this season, Joyce has been on fire. As of Friday, Joyce had the highest batting average in the American League and already had 15 extra-base hits, second on the Rays only to Ben Zobrist (22).

According to weighted on-base average — a statistic that measures a player's total offensive value — Joyce has been the sixth most valuable hitter in the major leagues and is quickly turning himself into a viable middle-of-the-order bat to complement Evan Longoria.

Making trades with a long-term outlook can be difficult to stomach at first, which is why many fans had strong, negative reactions to the trades of Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza. But as we've seen with Joyce, those trades can pay off in the long run and help ensure the long-term success of the franchise.

Steve Slowinski is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay.com, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays that specializes in analysis and statistics.

Matt Joyce's breakout rewards Tampa Bay Rays' long-term planning 05/14/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 14, 2011 6:33pm]
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