C.J. Cron Got Dickersoned

In 2017, Corey Dickerson was 28 years old, playing for the Rays. He spent a lot of his time at DH, but still, he was a solidly above-average hitter, and he finished as a 2+ win player. He had another two years of team control, and he was due for a raise in his second year of arbitration. During the offseason, though, the Rays designated Dickerson for assignment. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to the Pirates for a modest return. Part of the Rays’ thinking at the time was that they could easily replace Dickerson with C.J. Cron.

In 2018, Cron was 28 years old, playing for the Rays. He spent a lot of his time at DH, but still, he was a solidly above-average hitter, and he finished as a 2+ win player. He has another two years of team control, and he’s due for a raise in his second year of arbitration. On Tuesday, though, the Rays designated Cron for assignment. He might be traded or claimed any day. If the Rays receive anything, it will be a modest return.

It doesn’t look good when one of baseball’s cheapest franchises cuts ties with a player who’s due for a raise. It doesn’t look good when anyone cuts ties with a player coming off a legitimately productive full season. Cron’s projected salary for next year is only a little north of $5 million. By the numbers, he was worth more than that last season. Yet, as is usually the case, it’s not hard to figure out what’s happening, when you take a closer look. A variety of factors have come together to make Cron almost freely available.

It’s important to understand this isn’t just about the Rays. First-level thinking would lead one to criticism upon seeing that the Rays don’t want to pay a useful player a few million dollars. Even if the Rays didn’t want to pay Cron, though, that would just give them ample trade leverage. If Cron were considered a highly valuable player, the Rays could trade him for talented youth. Cron hasn’t been traded. If he does get traded, the return will be light.

It’s not like Cron’s availability was any secret. Here’s an article that mentions him as a likely trade candidate from the beginning of the month. Teams have known they could get Cron if they wanted. This is the Rays we’re talking about — other teams know they’re wide open to trades. But the Rays couldn’t find a trade partner. Maybe some of that is because no one else wanted to commit to Cron this early in the winter, but the point here is that the market sets the value of a player. This situation is bigger than the Rays. Cron is a powerful but relatively unathletic 1B/DH. The market has determined it doesn’t want to pay that much for those skills.

Just as the market last offseason determined it didn’t place a high value on Corey Dickerson. Dickerson, granted, proved himself a more capable defensive outfielder than expected. The Pirates did well. But Cron won’t become a good outfielder. He is, maybe, an average defensive first baseman. He is a negative on the bases. Last offseason, Yonder Alonso got $16 million over two years, as a superior athlete, following an offensive breakout. Mitch Moreland got $13 million over two years, as a superior athlete. Logan Morrison got $6.5 million over one year, following an offensive breakout. Matt Adams got $4 million over one year. Lucas Duda got $3.5 million over one year.

We can look at some more recent decisions. During the season, the Yankees traded Tyler Austin as part of a package for what was, at that point, an extremely underwhelming Lance Lynn. The other day Steve Pearce re-signed with the Red Sox for $6.25 million over one year. Yesterday the Angels designated Jose Fernandez for assignment, even though he’s projected by Steamer for a 107 wRC+. And even more notably, yesterday the Marlins designated Derek Dietrich for assignment. Dietrich is close to Cron’s age, and he’s also going into arbitration-year two. The projected salaries are close, and Dietrich has a track record of hitting in the majors, while playing pretty bad defense. It’s hardly been a secret the Marlins would be willing to trade Dietrich elsewhere. Nothing materialized. The value put on these players is low. It’s not just the Rays deciding that.

Okay, so, Cron’s market value is limited. Isn’t this supposed to be where the Rays shine? Aren’t the Rays supposed to try to take advantage of a market inefficiency? Why not keep Cron, as an above-average hitter in the middle of the lineup? This is where you can’t just look at a move in isolation. Everything a front office does happens in context, and the context on Tuesday was that teams had to fill out their 40-man rosters, protecting minor-league players from being eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. The Rays’ decision wasn’t just about Cron. It was about Cron, in the context of everyone else they have.

Cron is projected by Steamer for a 102 wRC+. Maybe you think that’s a little low — his three-year mark is 113. Let’s call it 105-110. Ji-Man Choi just blossomed at the major-league level, as a left-handed bat, and he’s projected for a 109 wRC+. Top prospect Jake Bauers had a roller-coaster debut, but he’s projected for a 101 wRC+, and he’s more athletic and versatile than Cron is. And then there’s prospect Nathaniel Lowe, who isn’t even on the 40-man yet. He’s about ready to help at first base, and he’s projected for a 111 wRC+. The Rays aren’t in dire need of what Cron provides.

Still, even if Cron were superfluous, in theory the Rays didn’t have to do anything yet. But this is where we get back to the 40-man deadline. On Tuesday, the Rays filled up their 40-man roster. Among the new additions: 25-year-old lefty Kyle Bird, 25-year-old righty Ian Gibaut, and 22-year-old righty Brock Burke. Bird just posted 28% strikeouts against advanced minor-league competition. Gibaut just posted 34% strikeouts against advanced minor-league competition. Burke just posted 27% strikeouts as a starter, getting up to Double-A. Odds are, had they been left unprotected, they would’ve been taken in the Rule 5 Draft. Maybe they would’ve come back to the Rays eventually, but that’s no guarantee. If you’re the Rays, do you trade Cron for Bird? Do you trade him for Gibaut or Burke? The Rays’ answer is apparently yes.

This is how a Rays-like team works. Cron has, at most, two years of control remaining, and combined they’d cost eight figures. Bird, Gibaut, and Burke have yet to even debut in the majors. Of course, you could choose anyone from the 40-man roster. The Rays could’ve designated someone else for assignment instead. But who would you suggest that be? Chaz Roe? He’s a reasonably effective reliever with three years of control. Jake Faria? He’s a major-league pitcher with five years of control. Wilmer Font? Five years of control. Hunter Wood? Six years of control. The Rays prefer to stockpile pitchers and team-control years. They’re not in the business of giving up on a young pitching talent so they can keep a one-dimensional slugger.

And this is probably going to work out for everyone involved. It’s not like the Rays are calling it an offseason; they’re moving on from Cron, but with a projected opening-day payroll of barely $40 million, they’ve been linked to short-term free agents like Nelson Cruz, Andrew McCutchen, and Josh Donaldson. Cruz and Donaldson in particular would be significant additions, offering skillsets superior to Cron’s. Dumping Cron saves money, but from all indications, the Rays are also going to turn around and spend money. Not a lot, not a Bryce Harper amount, but that payroll is going to rise. They’re not done.

And the timing here works out for Cron as well. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Rays are doing Cron a *favor,* but if Cron just wasn’t going to be in their plans, now Cron will be able to get some more immediate clarity. With Cron having been designated for assignment, now there’s a short window where Cron can be traded or claimed. If nothing happens in a week, then Cron becomes a free agent, immediately able to start poking around for a new job. Cron isn’t stuck on a roster where he doesn’t belong. He’s going to have a better idea of his future very soon. And C.J. Cron is going to find work. He’s good enough, and young enough, and he’ll sign for a salary comparable to his arbitration estimate. Cron is going to come out of this okay.

His just isn’t a highly-valued skillset. That’s ultimately what this comes down to. A team could go out and get C.J. Cron pretty cheap. It could go out and get, say, Wilmer Flores pretty cheap. It could probably get Eric Thames pretty cheap. Justin Bour was reportedly waived by the Phillies. Teams are looking for well-rounded players. Cron isn’t a well-rounded player. He’s good enough to have in the lineup, but he’s no one’s Plan A, and he’s not a player for teams to build around. Players getting dropped after productive seasons is nobody’s favorite side of baseball, but Cron will eventually land on his feet. And remember that every job lost is another job gained. Someone new in Tampa Bay is going to earn a good living, as a low-budget operation sets its sights on the playoffs.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Well done, Jeff.