Prioritizing Boring with David DeJesus

To be presented shortly: some statements, each of them more or less inarguable.

The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the best teams in baseball. This past season, they lost in the ALDS to the Red Sox. They’ve won at least 90 games four years in a row, they’ve won at least 84 games six years in a row, and in 2008 they advanced to the World Series. In terms of sustaining success, the Rays are a model organization.

The Rays are considered likely to part with ace David Price this offseason, not because he’s a free agent, but because he’ll be under expensive team control. In short, Price is going to cost more than the Rays would like to pay any one player, so the probability is that they’ll exchange their ace for youth, as they did with James Shields.

This coming season, the Rays, by choice, will pay several millions of dollars to outfielder David DeJesus. It appears the same could be said for 2015 as well. One of the more financially strapped organizations in the league is opening the wallet for a guy they picked up in exchange for a PTBNL in late August.

Here’s the deal: the Rays held an option for 2014, and they chose to exercise it. Now they’re about done with a multi-year contract that will keep DeJesus signed for two years, with a third-year option. DeJesus turns 34 in a month and a half. It’s unknown what the contract extension will cost, but the 2014 option the Rays exercised is worth $6.5 million, so that should work as an estimate. Given the way DeJesus was shipped around late last year, and given the Rays’ limited resources, this might on its face seem like a strange relative overpay.

But there are two considerations, one of them small, one of them less small. Firstly, the Rays’ $6.5 million option for DeJesus came with a $1.5 million buyout, meaning the effective cost of keeping DeJesus for 2014 is $5 million since they would’ve had to spend $1.5 million anyway. In your head, you might still think of $5 million as representing a lofty sum, but in baseball dollars that’s hardly anything, somewhere in the neighborhood of being the value of one win. There are disagreements on how to calculate what a win is worth on the open market, but nothing deviates too far from $5 million right now, and the Rays are at such a location on the win curve that wins to them mean a hell of a lot more than wins to, say, Miami.

And then, more importantly, there’s the matter of David DeJesus being a fine baseball player, even still. This might’ve been easy to forget, considering his August treatment by the Nationals, but DeJesus is all right in just about the most boring way possible.

Offense? Over the last three years, DeJesus has posted a combined 101 wRC+. League average, of course, at least for non-pitchers, is 100.

Baserunning? Over the last three years, DeJesus, by our estimates, has been worth +1.5 runs over average, or a fraction of a run a year. A negligible difference if I’ve ever seen one.

Defense? Again, over the last three years, DeJesus has put up a “defensive value” of -2.3 runs. This accounts and adjusts for his time in both center and the corner outfields, and the impression you get — rightly — is that DeJesus is versatile in the field without being a standout.

Walks? Strikeouts? Power? Hits on balls in play? Steals? DeJesus is average, incredibly average, almost impossibly average. There’s no one area where he stands out, and what he gives off as a consequence is a distinct fourth-outfielder vibe. DeJesus would make for a good fourth outfielder, but he also makes for a fine third outfielder for a team with some flexibility. You can be fine if you’re not great at anything, provided you’re also not awful at anything. DeJesus is awful at one thing, but it can be controlled.

The guy can’t really hit lefties. It’s hard to say where his true talent is, at this point. Through 2010, he wasn’t good against lefties, but he could hold his own. Since then, over 308 plate appearances, lefties have held DeJesus to a league-worst 29 wRC+. The next-worst, among players with 300 plate appearances, is Justin Morneau, at 41. DeJesus looks like he should be platooned, and where you’d think maybe the Rays would see his platoon issues as more of a sample-size thing than anything, they platooned him heavily themselves after picking him up, and they stand to platoon him going forward. Because DeJesus will be a platoon outfielder, it’s misleading and wrong to just extrapolate his WAR totals to bigger sample sizes.

For example, Steamer projects DeJesus to have as much value per 600 plate appearances next season as Torii Hunter. That’s not fair, because Hunter can play every day, and if DeJesus did that he’d be exposed more often against southpaws. But DeJesus can still play a lot, even if not every day, and average is valuable. Flexibility is valuable, as is a willingness to sit on the bench sometimes. If it seems weird for the Rays to commit so much money to DeJesus, it’s not the Rays who’re doing something wrong — it’s on you for not yet appreciating how much money there is in baseball right now. What seems like a lot of money isn’t.

It’s fun to look up some DeJesus comparables, by finding adequate offensive outfielders who have played center, but who have not played center primarily. The Padres have a couple candidates in Will Venable and Chris Denorfia, although Venable might have broken through with the bat just last season. Michael Brantley seems exactly the type. There’s Gregor Blanco, there’s Nate McLouth, there’s Brian Bogusevic and Reed Johnson and Ryan Sweeney and Casper Wells and..right on the list, you find Alex Rios. Next season, the Rangers will pay Rios $13 million, or about twice what the Rays will pay DeJesus. The last three years, Rios has been worth one more WAR, in about 350 more plate appearances. They’ve been offensive equals, and Rios’ advantage on the bases has been negated by DeJesus’ advantage in the field. What Rios does is hit more dingers and steal more bases. Rios is the flashier player, but he’s not the conclusively better player, and DeJesus will cost a lot less. The Rangers can afford Rios just fine, but the Rays should be pleased with their own cheaper approximation.

Granted, last summer, Dave already highlighted the differences and similarities between Rios and DeJesus. But everything still applies today, with the Rays making to DeJesus a longer-term commitment. They’re rewarding him for being boring, consistently and reliably boring, and that boringness keeps a player like DeJesus within the Rays’ tight budget. After this sentence, I don’t want to type “market inefficiency” ever again, but perhaps boring is a little undervalued. Just by WAR, DeJesus seems worth a bit more than he’ll actually be paid. It’s not a massive savings, but it seldom is. It’s about the little savings that add up, and the Rays have demonstrated several times over that they have a good grasp of these principles.

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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“This past season, they lost in the ALDS to the Rangers.”

I suspect this is a statement that would be described as less inarguable rather than more inarguable.