The Rays Just Trimmed Payroll Without Getting Worse

It got kind of lost on Saturday, because Eric Hosmer signed with the Padres on Saturday, and that became baseball’s big news. But the Padres weren’t the only team active over the weekend, as the Rays pulled off a trio of transactions. Jake Odorizzi was traded to the Twins for a low-level infielder. Additionally, C.J. Cron was acquired for a player to be named later, and, to make roster room, Corey Dickerson was designated for assignment. The moves all happened so fast it got confusing, but the sequence made an unpleasant impression. Dickerson was a 2017 AL All-Star, and Odorizzi had been a regular starter for four years. It looked as if the Rays were partially tearing down.

Indeed, in a sense, that’s true — ownership was looking for the front office to cut payroll. Even though the Rays’ payrolls have always been modest, money is a factor in everything, and the 2017 club apparently got a little pricey. The owners asked for a payroll reduction, and an ownership ask is an ownership demand. This is how the Rays have long operated. Ideally, it wouldn’t be the case, but it is what it is. I can’t compel the owners to spend more than they do.

But while many have been upset by the departures of Odorizzi and Dickerson — including Kevin Kiermaier — it should also be understood just where the Rays are. The Rays now aren’t really worse off compared to where they were. The team isn’t tanking, as far as I can tell, and they’re not planning to lose 95 games. Two big contributors from the past are now gone, yet the roster is still okay. That’s not a bad outcome after shedding $10 million.

To go into specifics: Odorizzi is gone, and his salary was going to be $6.3 million. Dickerson is gone, and his salary was going to be $5.95 million. The Rays designated Dickerson for assignment to goose along trade negotiations, and something will probably get done, but even if it doesn’t, and Dickerson is just let go, the Rays will owe him one-sixth of his salary, which would be about $1 million. Cron’s salary will be $2.3 million. I’ll note that, while Odorizzi and Dickerson have two remaining years of team control, Cron has three. I’m certain that was a selling point.

I’ve seen comments to the effect of, well, the Rays are blowing it up. One can’t forget they also traded Evan Longoria. Other value is being lost to free agency. I understand that not all reactionary comments are thought all the way through, but the 2018 Rays are probably being underestimated. While last year’s club finished 80-82, they also had a BaseRuns record of 87-75, which was the same as the Red Sox. This year’s team currently projects here to go 80-82, and over at Baseball Prospectus, PECOTA projects 85-77. The Rays clearly aren’t one of the super-teams. They’re not the Red Sox, and they’re not the Yankees. But they look about the same as, say, the Twins. Is anyone extremely down on the Twins?

Let’s walk through these things. Odorizzi is gone, and while the Rays say they like the prospect they got, he won’t make a difference for a while. How do you replace Odorizzi’s innings? The Rays are actually set up pretty well to do it. Of course, Chris Archer and Blake Snell were already going to be at the front of the rotation. Behind them, however, are Jake Faria, Nathan Eovaldi, Matt Andriese, Brent Honeywell, Jose De Leon, Yonny Chirinos, and Ryan Yarbrough, among others. With Odorizzi out, some number of those pitchers slide one slot up the depth chart, but each one of them should be perfectly capable. The Rays have assembled enviable rotation depth. Odorizzi was superfluous.

And while it’s not as if Odorizzi isn’t worth anything, a good deal of shine has come off the apple. His strikeouts have dropped from their 2014 peak. His walks just reached a career high. Even though 2017 Odorizzi made 28 starts, he was worth all of 0.1 WAR. If you prefer to give him credit for actual runs allowed, then that version of WAR put him at 1.1, and that’s with a minuscule .227 BABIP. Odorizzi didn’t work deep into starts, and his numbers took a tumble. The Rays have confidence they can replace him internally. They probably can.

More shocking than the Odorizzi trade was the Dickerson DFA. An Odorizzi trade was probably inevitable. Dickerson, again, was an All-Star. Granted, Jason Vargas was also an All-Star, but Dickerson was a 2.6-win player. It feels like mismanagement. Yet the Rays deserve some benefit of the doubt; it goes without question they’re cheap, but the front office always does its due diligence. No team is more determined to maximize its surplus value where possible. Dickerson feels more valuable than he is. In this market, he’s just not considered special.

While Dickerson just finished with a solid 115 wRC+, the other numbers suggest he somewhat overachieved. The projections put him at 103. Dickerson is a talented hitter, but he’s not a great hitter, and he had a bad second half. He’s not an above-average baserunner, and he’s not an above-average defender. The Rays saw him as a left fielder and a DH.

The Rays called around, and they couldn’t find an enthusiastic trade partner. They might find a trade partner now, but any return won’t be significant. Why? Matt Adams signed for one year and $4 million. Curtis Granderson signed for one year and $5 million. Austin Jackson signed for two years and $6 million, while Howie Kendrick signed for two years and $7 million. Among the remaining free agents are Melky Cabrera, Lucas Duda, Jon Jay, Adam Lind, and Seth Smith. There are half-decent bats out there to be acquired. If Dickerson is a potential bargain, so are all of these players. They’re just not thought of very highly, so no one wants to trade the Rays a real prospect.

That doesn’t mean the Rays had to drop Dickerson, but Cron is actually a better fit, and he’s cheaper. While Cron doesn’t play the outfield, the Rays didn’t want Dickerson out there much anyway, and where Dickerson bats from the left side, Cron is a righty. That’ll allow him to more easily split time with guys like Brad Miller and Denard Span. Dickerson, again, projects for a 103 wRC+, and he had a bad second half. Cron projects for a 99 wRC+, but he had a good second half. A second half in which he lifted the ball and pulled it.

Cron has always hit the ball hard. Like Dickerson, he probably swings too much. But he’s been a better-than-average hitter over his career, even though the Angels never seemed to like him very much. There’s some lingering upside here, if Cron’s 2017 second half is in any way indicative. It feels a little bit like what Logan Morrison did before he broke out. The Rays are happy to take the chance, since Cron fits their active roster.

This isn’t some case of the Rays acting like geniuses. It doesn’t take a genius to designate a player for assignment, and it doesn’t take a genius to trade a starting pitcher for a low-level prospect. I do personally like Cron a fair amount, but it’s not like the Rays had to drive a hard bargain. Cron was obviously very available. The Rays got him for nothing. He’ll help, as at least a semi-regular.

The Rays didn’t pull off any wizardry. It’s just that the total impact of all this is less than it looks like. I don’t think the perception matches the reality here. Yeah, the Rays dumped an All-Star, and a member of their starting rotation. But I don’t think the team is worse off for the moves. And even though the front office has been told to drop payroll, the club still looks borderline competitive, depending on how the young pitching holds up. All in all, this weekend was very Rays. It’s frustrating, because fans want players they recognize, players they can count on sticking around. But the Rays are just trying to squeeze out as many wins as possible. It’s as much as they can do, given the spending constraints in place.

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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4 years ago

I’m sorry, I might have missed this, but:

Did the 2018 Rays season win projection actually not go down, or did it just not go down as much as the tone of the conversation implies it went down?

4 years ago
Reply to  Forrest

I believe it went up a couple tenths of a win.

The Cron for Dickerson swap is a little loss, but by taking out Odorizzi most of the innings went to Honeywell which improve the projection there.

4 years ago
Reply to  jtmorgan

Ah, thanks! I wish that line were in the actual article, though.

Interesting that swapping Honeywell for Odorizzi ups their team projection. Odorizzi has an option left, right? I wonder how high FG writers can get team projections if they had free reign to run the team how they like.

4 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

I know it’s kind of a ridiculous thing, but if you’re consulting my wishlist, I would really love to have a data structure such that we could get historical daily snapshots of team projections. I think that would be really nice for whoever’s writing articles like yours in 2028.

4 years ago
Reply to  timprov

You can see at least some days in the past using the wayback machine. If “they” are going to the trouble to “backup” most of the internet and make those “backups” public, might as well make use of them 🙂

On the most recent capture, 2/7/18, the Rays were projected at 80-82 and now they are listed at 78-84 — though as Jeff Sullivan mentions above, how much of that is STEAMER->ZiPS would have to be considered.

Of course, I won’t argue that being able to do it right on [like the post season odds] wouldn’t be easier [and more complete] 🙂

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 years ago
Reply to  jtmorgan

This to me is honestly a great argument that the projections aren’t adequately accounting for the benefits of depth and/or injury risk. “Addition by subtraction” to something like a starting rotation isn’t typically (in my view) an adequate account of how things are likely to shake out across a whole 162-game season.