Steven Souza Jr. vindicating big trade for Rays

The Rays’ Steven Souza Jr. has 30 home runs this season while improving his defense and baserunning but wants to improve on his .236 batting average.
The Rays’ Steven Souza Jr. has 30 home runs this season while improving his defense and baserunning but wants to improve on his .236 batting average.
Published Sept. 23, 2017

BALTIMORE — There was a time when the three-team, 11-player transaction the Rays orchestrated to get Steven Souza Jr. from the Nationals looked liked a bad deal.

Not as bad of a move as leaving Josh Hamilton exposed in the Rule 5 draft, or taking Tim Beckham over Buster Posey, or signing Pat Burrell.

But still bad.

Actually, it looked bad most of the time since the December 2014 blockbuster, when the Rays shipped outfielder Wil Myers to San Diego, then flipped two key pieces of the return, pitcher Joe Ross and (then to-be-named) infielder Trea Turner, to Washington for Souza.

But no longer.

Souza's solid '17 season suddenly silenced skeptics — say that five time fast — and showed that the Rays, too, might have gotten what they were looking for, a five-tool player who can impact games in many ways.

"This is a good chapter to close — I put up a productive major-league season," Souza said before Friday's 8-3 win over the Orioles. "Sitting here and being like 'I don't want to fulfill that trade' would be a lie. You ever get traded for somebody, a trade as big as that one, you want to live up to that trade ultimately.

"And I feel like putting together a season like this, I'm like, Okay, you know what, I'm here. I'm established. Now let's go play the game and see how good I can get."

That's not to say Souza is fully satisfied with this season.

The 30 homers and 78 RBIs he has posted are pretty special, the reduction in strikeouts (from 34 percent to 29.3) a sign of progress and improvements in his defense and baserunning important.

But — as uncool and unsophisticated as it sounds — there's that .236 average that bothers him.

"I still don't think I'm at that point where I'm like, you know what, this is probably the best I'll put together," he said. "This is a good season. I feel like this is a productive major-league season. And if I was a 7-year-old, or I was in the minor leagues, and you told me I was going to have almost 80 RBIs and have 30 homers to boot, I would take it. And I think I would say, 'You're crazy.' I wouldn't have ever thought that would happen.

"I don't view myself as that power guy that's just a power threat. I want to be a consistent hitter that hits and just happens to have some power that comes with it.

"When I look at my year for some reason, I just look at the average. That's what I focus on the most. I may be really old-school in doing that, but that's what I take the most pride in. … I don't think I'm a .240 hitter."

The final month been ugly — "the black cloud over it," as Souza said — just 7-for-his-last-63, and perhaps the flip side of staying healthy enough to play in 140-plus games, by far his most in any season.

But, still …

"He's had a really good year," manager Kevin Cash said. "Watching him kind of come on as a player, '15, '16 and now '17, he's just made huge strides and he's going to continue being a really good player for us."

Good enough that Souza, 28, is now considered a core piece of the Rays lineup. Good enough that he'll cash in for around $3 million as he heads into the arbitration process for the first time.

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And good enough that the big trade — even though Myers hit 28 homers last year in earning All-Star honors and a six-year, $83 million contract, and Turner hit .342 with a .937 OPS in finishing second in National League rookie of the year voting — might now be considered a pretty good deal.

(Plus, it also netted the Rays promising prospect Jake Bauers, their potential first baseman of the future; pitcher Burch Smith, who has worked his way back from injuries; catcher Rene Rivera, who lasted one season; and minor-league left-hander Travis Ott.)

"Wil's a really good player, he's been an All-Star," Souza said. "Trea Turner's got an amazing future ahead of him. Unfortunately Joe went down for Tommy John surgery. So it's kind of like it's me for Wil and Trea."

And, finally, that's not such a bad thing.

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.