ST. PETERSBURG – Wanting to preserve the chance to upgrade to a more complete overall hitter, the Rays designated for assignment leading home run hitter C.J. Cron Tuesday among moves to open space on the 40-man roster to add five prospects.
Though leading the team with 30 homers while posting a .253 average, 74 RBIs and .816 OPS splitting time between first base and DH, Cron, 28, seemed likely to go at some point this off-season as the Rays are expected to consider high profile free agents such as Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen and pursue trades, with Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt among those considered available.
Needing roster spots and unable to work out a trade for Cron, who is projected to make $5.2 million via arbitration, the Rays chose the DFA route, giving them seven days for resolution. Cron is expected to be placed on waivers and if unclaimed would become a free agent.
"This was a tough call obviously because of what C.J. did this past year and what he meant to our group,'' senior VP Chaim Bloom said. "We certainly haven't closed off the possibility of a return. But with as many deserving players that we have on our club that need playing time and also the number of possible paths for our off-season to take, it didn't make sense to us to commit to him right now.''
The Rays could have waited until the Nov. 30 contract tender deadline to move on from Cron but obviously felt the roster spot was more valuable to act now.
Bloom said the Rays wanted to both make sure to make sure there was room for some of their young left-handed hitters to get at-bats (such as Jake Bauers and Ji-Man Choi) and also to keep "a number of different options open and a number of different paths viable" for additions.
But he also acknowledged that replacing Cron's offense could be a challenge.
"That's part of what made this tough," Bloom said. "I don't think you can take lightly what he produced this past year and assume that you're just going to be able to snap your fingers and replace it. Obviously, he was a huge part of our offense. We're optimistic and hopeful that we'll be able to put an offense together that's going to make up for those contributions that we might not have with C.J. But it's not something we took lightly and certainly a tall task to replace what he produced."
The five prospects added to the roster and now protected from being taken in the Rule 5 draft were LHP Kyle Bird, LHP Brock Burke, RHP Ian Gibaut, OF Joe McCarthy and OF Jesus Sanchez.
Bird and Gibaut are closest to the majors and could see action in 2019. Sanchez is the highest rated prospect from that group. Among players the Rays chose not to protect and now risk losing was INF Kean Wong.
To make additional room on the roster, the Rays also DFA'd RHP Oliver Drake and LHP Hoby Milner, and outrighted RHP Jose Mujica, who is likely to miss the full season recovering from Tommy John surgery, to the minors.
They now have a full 40-man roster.
Bird, 25, is a lanky lefty reliever and somewhat of a control freak, allowing only 108 walks in 307 1/3 minor-league innings. He moved from Double-A Montgomery to Triple-A Durham in late May, posting an overall 3-3, 2.39 mark with four saves.
Burke, 22, earned Rays minor-league pitcher of the year honors after going 9-6, 3.08 ERA in 25 games (22 starts) between Class A Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery. His 158 strikeouts ranked 14th in all of minor-league baseball, and more impressive to be done in 137 1/3 innings. He was a third-round pick in the 2014 draft.
Gibaut, 25, is a hard-throwing reliever who has moved steadily through the system after being a 2015 11th round pick, going 4-3, 2.09 with 14 saves in 15 chances this season for Triple-A Durham, striking out 75 in 56 innings.
McCarthy, 24, has also climbed through the minors as a 2015 fifth-round pick from the University of Virginia, known for his strike zone discipline and defensive versatility in playing first base and outfield. He moved up to Triple-A Durham this season but was limited to 47 games due to a back injury, hitting .269 with an .889 OPS, 8 homers, 27 RBIs