Deadline Winnersâ€”When Less is More
Why the Rays did the right thing
This weekâ€™s trade deadline incited the usual arms race from the A.L. East, with both of the usual suspects making a splash. Joining the frenzy for the first time, though, were the Tampa Bay Rays. In their first season atop the standings, Tampa was in equally uncharted territory as a buyer, not a seller, at the end of July. Rumors swirled for several weeks, and ended up focusing mainly on Pirates export Jason Bay. They were also reportedly interested in some other big name players, including Xavier Nady, Mark Texeira, CC Sabathia and Joe Blanton. When the clock struck three, however, Tampaâ€™s roster remained materially intact. This provoked some outcry in the sunshine state, where fans are anxious for success.
The Rays were certainly capable of playing high stakes with the Pirates or anyone else, as they are endowed with the gameâ€™s richest farm system. A judicious use of one or two top prospects could have easily landed some of the biggest fish in the market and propped the Rays up further in the pennant race. They opted not to, however, and in the bigger picture, they made the right move.
Of course, the arguments in favor of making a big trade are not insignificant. At the end of play on Wednesday, July 30, Tampa held a three game lead in the AL Eastâ€”something theyâ€™d never done before so late in the season. The quintet of starting pitchers, all 26 or younger, has an ERA+ well over 100, and ten shutouts among them. The hitting isnâ€™t as pretty, but nonetheless touts developing stars Evan Longoria, Dioner Navarro and B.J. Upton. Many spectators believe (and for good reason) that the team was just a move or two away from contending for this yearâ€™s title. Furthermore, with the Yankees and Red Sox faltering and/or aging, it seemed as though the iron was hot.
The two most cited needs for improvement were a right-handed bat and a spare arm in the bullpen. As far as the hitting is concerned, Tampa has relied for most of the year on lefty Gabe Gross and righty Jonny Gomes in right field, and neither have hit much at all. Gomes in particular has an OBP of just .302. A look at his splits, however, shows that he actually does better against righties than lefties: an OPS of .780, compared to .589 against southpaws.
Now, clearly, Bay would have been an upgrade over either of those twoâ€”over both combined, in fact. The reported asking price from the Bucs was shortstop Reid Brignac and monstruous (6â€™8â€, 280 lb.) righty Jeff Niemann, both of whom are currently in AAA. Brignac is widely seen as the shortstop of the future, probably next season. Heâ€™s a very serviceable infielder with a lot of pop in his bat, and heâ€™s only 22. Niemann may be sent to the bullpen to combat some problems with consistency and shoulder injuries. The two were ranked #5 and #7 in the organization by Baseball America in January.
The question is whether Tampa would have been better off with two years of Bayâ€”at a good priceâ€”than with Brignac and Niemann still in the system. Bay is 29 years old right now. Using runs created as a metric, heâ€™s the 19th best outfielder in the game right now (2007-2008 statistics). His OPS+ this year is 135, heâ€™s an above average fielder, and would have the benefit of playing next to B.J. Upton. Again, there are not a lot of bad things to say about Bay.
I believe the most important factor in this trade is Brignac, and more generally, what he represents to the organization. The Rays farm system is stacked, but itâ€™s also very pitching-heavy. Besides Brignac, there arenâ€™t many offensive prospects who will be able to help in the majors in the next two seasons. Desmond Jennings, Ryan Royster and Tim Beckham are a long way away. For a team that, hopefully, is only in the very early stages of a competitive period, it would not be wise to strip the program of advanced hitting prospects for a momentary upgrade at the big league level. Next year, Brignac could replace weak-hitting Jason Bartlett and let him move to a utility role, making better use of his above average glove.
Without the Bay trade, can Tampa still upgrade in the outfield? Yes, they can. The answer to their problems may be in Triple-A Durham. Fernando Perez is near the top of the International League leaderboard in a number of run production categories, including walks, hits and runs. Heâ€™s a right-handed hitter and has blazing speed. Perez is a prototypical center fielder, but thereâ€™s no reason not to move him to the outfield to get his bat and legs into the lineup. In fact, the Twins faced a similar situation earlier this season, with Carlos Gomez and Denard Span vying for time in center. Span eventually stepped in as a right-fielder when Michael Cuddyer went down, and the move has paid huge dividends. Perez has a similar skill set and, at 25 years old, should definitely be ready for the challenge. It should also be kept in mind that Rocco Baldelli is nearing a return, and could definitely provide a spark to the offense from the right side.
As far as the bullpen goes, there was never any rumored trade on the table, although itâ€™s believed that Tampa inquired about Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes and Arthur Rhodes, among others. These trades, too, would have involved parting with a top prospect, and with the possible exception of Fuentes, none of the available relievers deserved such a prize. As mentioned earlier, Tampa has an embarrassment of pitching prospects. They may as well throw oneâ€”possibly Niemannâ€”into the bullpen down the stretch run and see how they come out.
The worst case scenario here for the Rays is that they stumble down the line this season and fail to make the playoffs yet again. In that case, their doom would be going into the off-season with money to burn and a frightening array of young talent to develop and/or trade. Looking back from 2009 and 2010, the Rays should be very happy to have not been trigger happy at this trading deadline, keeping their prospects at home instead.
sources: baseball-reference.com, mlb.com, baseballprospectus.com, baseballamerica.com, tampabay.com.