ST. PETERSBURG — Barring what would be an unexpected deal at this point, the Rays appear content with their remixed lineup.
And, naturally, happy about their moves, bringing in INF Yandy Diaz, OF Avisail Garcia, OF Guillermo Heredia and C Mike Zunino.
But here’s a question to ponder while waiting for that football game Sunday night to mercifully end and officially put baseball on the clock:
What if they didn’t make any of those moves, and instead kept the group they had at the end of last year’s 90-win season?
Rather than Diaz, Garcia, Heredia and Zunino, would you rather have 1B Jake Bauers, DH C.J. Cron, OF Mallex Smith and whatever catcher (Robinson Chirinos? Jonathan Lucroy? Kurt Suzuki?) they would have added?
Smith showed he could be a dynamic and disruptive force atop the lineup, hitting .296 with a .773 OPS and 40 steals. Cron had a team-high 30-homers with a .253 average and .816 OPS. Bauers, considered among their cornerstone prospects, had an up-and-very-down debut, finishing at .201 with 11 homers, 48 RBIs, a .700 OPS.
But to the Rays, each had flaws or fit issues.
With Smith, it seems they think they’re selling high, that Mallex maxed out. Cron’s lack of versatility, swinging right-handed, limited to first and DH, made him an expensive ($4.8 million) spare part. And Bauers, well, I’m still not sure why they moved him, except that they really, really wanted Diaz — enough to throw in $5 million.
So what do they have instead?
Zunino will get the majority share of the time behind the plate. Diaz, who also hits righty, will play first, third and potentially some DH and outfield. Garcia, a righty-hitting veteran looking to regain 2017 All-Star form, will play against all lefties and compete for at-bats vs. righthanders, kind of like the Carlos Gomez role. Heredia can fill across the outfield when there is an injury, though may be battling Brandon Lowe for the final roster spot.
How well the new guys do will be a referendum on the moves. It’s early, but current projections, such as Steamer on fangraphs.com, are not promising, and, notably, with limited playing time:
Diaz: .271, 5 HRs, 33 RBIs, .734 OPS, 1.1 WAR, 85 games
Garcia: .255, 8 HRs, 30 RBIs, .736 OPS, 0.3 WAR, 55 games
Heredia: .252, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs, .683 OPS, 0.2 WAR, 30 games
Zunino: .210, 16 HRs, 43 RBIs, .693 OPS, 1.6 WAR, 86 games
Conversely, all with regular playing time:
Jake Bauers, Indians: .245, 16 HRs, 60 RBI, .753 OPS, 1.1 WAR, 117 games
C.J. Cron, Twins: .262, 24 HRs, 74 RBI, .805 OPS, 1.7 WAR, 121 games
Mallex Smith, Mariners: .263, 6 HRs, 50 RBIs, .697 OPS, 2.3 WAR, 142 games
There obviously are other factors that shaped the Rays’ decisions and affected the fit, such as planning on full seasons from DH/1B Ji-Man Choi and OFs Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows, all acquired via in-season trades; CF Kevin Kiermaier staying healthy; the potential mid-season arrival of prospect 1B Nate Lowe. Also, that they spent $30 million to sign RHP Charlie Morton for two years.
“Certainly there’s some big shoes to fill in the guys no longer here,” senior VP Chaim Bloom said. “With the new additions we feel like we added a lot of flexibility and versatility, and most importantly talent and upside. This group, they all have the potential to really impact the club this year, and there is upside there to be really impactful players.”
The unprecedented expansion to covering 11 spring games is a strong sign the Rays will be operating under a long-awaited rich new TV deal, maybe still being finalized. There was a report last spring by Sports Business Daily of talks on a 15-year pact with Fox worth $1.2 billion-plus, averaging $82 million a year, a hefty hike from the previous deal that supposedly topped out at $35 million. The Rays didn’t say anything then, and still won’t.
As the latest analyst to lavish praise on the Rays’ farm system, putting nine of their prospects in his top 100, ESPN’s Keith Law also raised what may be a popular topic this spring: Should 2017 top pick Brendan McKay remain a two-way player or stick just to pitching?
“I think that time has come,’’ Law said. “They’re going to have to make that decision now. They don’t necessarily agree. But every scout I spoke to who saw him last year said, ‘Just put him on the mound.’ He could eventually be a good two-way player, but there is such a disparity between where he is as a pitcher and where he is as a hitter that you’re probably holding him back as a pitcher.”
Playing at Class A, McKay went 5-2, 2.41 with 103 strikeouts in 78 innings on the mound, .214 with six homers, 39 RBIs, 52 strikeouts in 192 at-bats and a .727 OPS at the plate. The Rays go into 2019 planning to keep him pitching and hitting.
Numbers for new players include 2 for Diaz, 10 for Zunino (who wore 3 in Seattle but wasn’t getting Evan Longoria’s old number), 24 for Garcia and 50 for Morton (with Austin Pruitt switching to 45). … Pham was fourth in MLB Network’s top 10 leftfielder rankings, Kiermaier only 10th in center. … Initial spring workouts will start at 10:30 or 11 a.m., the later times a continuing nod to studies showing sleep benefits. … LHP Colin Poche, among the most intriguing spring invites, was labeled “the most unhittable arm in the minors” by fangraphs.com in posting a 0.82 ERA and averaging 15 strikeouts per nine innings. … PSA: You need a ticket, mobile or printed, to attend the free Feb. 9 Fan Fest. … The promotions schedule is due out next week. … The Tampa Bay Times launched a fan friendly Facebook group page called Rays Fever. … An interesting mlb.com exercise to field 2019 teams only with prospects projected the Rays would have the fourth-best squad, after the Padres, White Sox, Braves.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.