Rays Replace Steven Souza With Older Steven Souza

It’s not that I advise always taking teams at their word. Teams have an interest in pushing obvious agendas, and much of what they put out there is essentially some kind of propaganda. Teams always have to be selling themselves, which means emphasizing optimism while downplaying any negatives. But I trust the Rays on what they say they’re doing. Over the weekend, the Rays added C.J. Cron while losing Corey Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi. They said they slashed payroll without getting meaningfully worse, and I agreed. That post was promptly followed by news of the Rays trading Steven Souza Jr. for prospects, but the Rays said that was a baseball trade, not a money move, and that it would be the end of the selling. I believed the Rays; it just didn’t feel like an actual tank-job. There was also the room to make an addition.

An addition has already been made. The Rays have plugged the Souza void by signing Carlos Gomez for a year and $4 million. Gomez is signing from out of the bargain bin, so this isn’t a franchise-altering transaction. And there’s always the chance that, tomorrow or next week, Kevin Kiermaier or Chris Archer is swapped for younger players. The Rays still could tank, if they wanted to. But Gomez will actually earn more in 2018 than Souza will. And I think this is just more evidence of how the Rays are forever attempting to thread the needle. What is Carlos Gomez, as a ballplayer? He’s just an older and more fragile Steven Souza. It’s not the worst exchange, given the four new prospects from the trade.

Someone actually mentioned Gomez in my chat earlier. That was before the signing news got out. Reader Jack asked if the Rays might be interested in Gomez or Jose Bautista, and I figured that Gomez would make sense as a Souza-style player, if he were affordable. It was going to be up to Scott Boras, but, here we are, and by a stroke of good luck this post was effectively given a head start. It’s not that Gomez and Souza are the same. It’s that they’ve looked really, really similar.

The major difference is that Souza is 28, and he turns 29 in April. Gomez turned 32 in December. Keep that in mind as you look at the following. Here’s how the two players have done over the past three seasons.

A Comparison
Player Time PA BB/HBP% K% wRC+ BsR Def WAR WAR/600
Steven Souza 2015 – 2017 1511 12% 32% 107 10 -10 6.5 2.6
Carlos Gomez 2015 – 2017 1356 9% 27% 97 8 9 5.8 2.6

Souza has been the better hitter, but Gomez has been the better defender, thanks to his playing a premium position. Souza has gotten into more games, but looking at WAR on a rate basis, the two are virtually identical. Now! Souza just broke out, in a way, this past season. So how about looking at the same table, but for 2017 only?

A Comparison
Player Time PA BB/HBP% K% wRC+ BsR Def WAR WAR/600
Steven Souza 2017 617 14% 29% 120 3 -3 3.7 3.6
Carlos Gomez 2017 426 12% 30% 110 2 1 2.3 3.2

Souza, again, was the better hitter, but Gomez, again, was the better defender, thanks to his playing a premium position. Souza got into more games, so he was the more valuable of the two, but looking at WAR on a rate basis, Souza’s advantage narrows. These are two high-strikeout power hitters. Not Giancarlo Stanton-level power hitters, but their offense is driven by dingers. The skillsets look a lot alike.

We can also examine Statcast information from Baseball Savant. Again, we can focus just on 2017. By average exit velocity, Souza was better than Gomez, but by just 0.4 miles per hour. By rate of batted balls hit at least 100 miles per hour, Souza was better than Gomez, but by just two percentage points. By rate of barrels or solid contact — two Statcast batted-ball categories — Gomez was better than Souza, but by just one percentage point. And looking at sprint speed, Souza was faster than Gomez, but by just 0.2 feet per second. If you like the Souza skillset, the trade made the Rays meaningfully worse. But Gomez also has the Souza skillset. You could argue he had it first. He’s no less dynamic an outfielder.

This much is important: no major-league executive would rather have Carlos Gomez than Steven Souza. It matters that Gomez is more than three years Souza’s senior, and Gomez hasn’t been very durable. This past season alone, Gomez went on the DL with a hamstring strain, and he went on the DL with a shoulder cyst. He later missed time with an ankle sprain. Souza played in 148 games. But Souza did have significant hip surgery later in 2016. And this isn’t just about Gomez vs. Souza. It’s more than just a one-for-one.

Out in right field, the Rays have accepted some manner of downgrade. The potential is there that the downgrade won’t be major. Gomez could easily perform like Souza-lite. The Rays also now have Anthony Banda. He could make a difference as soon as this coming year. The Rays also now have Nick Solak. He could make a difference as soon as this coming year. There are two other players to be named later. Maybe they’ll be nothing, but Solak and Banda are legitimate prospects. So, if you’re the Rays, would you rather have Souza, or would you rather have Gomez, Banda, and Solak? The Rays would tell you that the prospects are easily worth the immediate downgrade. Just as was the case over the weekend, the roster hasn’t gotten significantly worse. The Rays remain a fringe wild-card contender, even this season. The American League has no fifth super-team.

Perception is that the Rays are just tanking. It’s not a good look when any team slashes payroll. The Rays didn’t have to trade Souza, and if they fancy themselves potential contenders, you’d think they’d want to add, instead of just trying to not get much worse. It would all be so much easier if ownership would make a greater investment in the on-field product. That’s been a handicap forever, and every day, there are more and more calls for ownership to sell. But it should be obvious that the constraints are the constraints. They just won’t act like a big-budget team. So the front office is left having to keep the long-term forever in mind, without allowing the short-term ballclub to crater. It’s the roster-management equivalent of a knife-edge ridgetop, but you can see the light, down the tunnel. The Rays aren’t tanking, because the Rays don’t have to tank. They’re okay right now, and reinforcements are coming.

Whenever the projected standings update, the Rays will project to be somewhere in the vicinity of .500. Close enough to have a realistic shot, but distant enough to not be considered among the true contenders. This is what teams like the Rays and Pirates have frequently aimed for. But the Rays also recently ranked fifth in Baseball America’s organizational rankings. And, reflecting on recent work by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel, the Rays have five of baseball’s top 50 prospects. Some of them are poised to graduate very soon. The Rays, in one way, are in a transition phase, but the team right now is far from hopeless. It only feels hopeless, because so many familiar faces have left. But that’s just how the Rays operate.

When you think about it deeply, you wonder if this is really how the Rays should operate. I don’t have access to their internal books, but you have to think ownership could invest more without going broke. Ownership has given the front office a tremendously difficult task, and that’s been the assignment all along. It’s hardly fan-friendly, with success difficult to sustain, and players constantly being exchanged for others. Right now, much of the remaining fan base is pissed off, because several significant players have left. But the front office simply can’t worry about that. It has to try its best to keep a small-budget operation competitive. I think everything that’s happened lately has been with that mission firmly in mind.

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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If I had to read one more post Reddit about how the Ray’s were tanking I think I was going to go crazy. Thank you for being a voice of reason. Playing to win 80 games isn’t tanking.