Hot-Stove: Of Slim Pickings in the DH/OF Market

Perhaps someone should ask Nastradamus if this is what the Rays outfield will look like in 2013.

Perhaps someone should ask Nastradamus if this is what the Rays outfield will look like in 2013.

Marc Topkin noted that the Rays, “Still need a DH. Maybe another outfielder. Conceivably both,” and “The DH spot is wide open, and a free agent seems likely, though the money, of course, will be a factor as the payroll is already in the $55 million range (plus incentives) and thus unlikely to go much higher.” With Spring Training a little more than a month away, a quick peak at the free-agent market finds slim pickings to say the least.

It’s been widely speculated that the an option for the Rays would be to re-sign the likes of Luke Scott or Delmon Young, or pick up a seasoned veteran like Jim Thome. Dan Johnson, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Lee, and injury risks like Travis Hafner and Juan Rivera have been thrown around as well. With Michael Bourn’s asking price being too high along with the Rays assumed unwillingness to trade any other players, the above mentioned free-agents might be the Rays only hope.

To be honest, I’m not certain what the answer is. Will it be to platoon the DH role, akin to what Tampa Bay did last season when the Luke Scott/Carlos Pena experiment proved to be a failure? That could be a solution. Fox example, it could keep someone like Ben Zobrist in the mix on a daily basis, assuming that he’d also be splitting his time platooning in right field and at second base. Or, is it possible that Zobrist will be spending time at second base or in right exclusively, moving Matt Joyce to left field where he’d platoon with Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld? The possibilities are wide open, yet seemingly closed.

I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty, that Luke Scott is not the answer. That boat has sailed, let him travel toward the sunset. A quick look at his advanced stats show that his strikeout percentage (K%) has been on the rise since 2009, while his walk percentage (BB%) has decreased sharply in the same span of time. What’s more, he’s not projected to be much better in 2013. Bill James projects that he’ll hit only 12 homers in a measly 277 plate appearances. I’m also inclined to believe that neither Delmon Young or Dan Johnson are the solutions to the DH conundrum. Especially not DanJo.

Luke Scott's advanced statistics from 2009 to 2012 (courtesy of Fan Graphs)

Luke Scott’s advanced statistics from 2009 to 2012 (courtesy of Fangraphs.com)

The question then begs: does Tampa Bay even need an established DH. Surprisingly, the answer might be no.

Bradley Woodrum of Fangraphs has suggested that the Rays offensive woes may not be as bad as many have made them out to be. He asserts that though the Rays only scored 697 runs in 2012 (fewer than in 2011), there is something to be said about the Rays being named 5th best offense in the AL, with concern to wRC+. He believes that the much maligned Tropicana Field should be seen as a pitchers stadium, similar to Safeco Field, O.co Coliseum, and AT&T Park.

Tropicana Field, among AL stadiums not named Safeco, has the lowest rate of homeruns per game and the second largest foul territory in the majors. And unlike stadiums such as O.co Coliseum, where the ample foul territory rests behind home plate and the corner bases, the Trop’s foul territory extends deep into the outfield.

…and

If I am making it sound like the Rays play in one of the most pitcher-friendly, hitter-mean parks in the league, then good. They do. Since 2008, the Trop has consistently ranked among the top five ballparks in suppressing run scoring, so when they plate less than 700 runs in a season, it is not necessarily a red flag.

…finally

As Dave Studeman recently noted, the Rays had one of the best run differentials in the league and under-performed to the tune of 5 wins — the gap, we should note, between them and the first-place Yankees. But since their hitters have such a high strikeout rate (21.7%) and low BABIP (.284) — both consistent trends since 2008 — pitchers with solid control and home run suppressing talent can often avoid the team’s biggest snares: drawing walks, stealing bases, and hitting homers (10th best HR-rate in 2012, 9th best since 2008).

That said, the San Francisco Giants (you know, the lil old team that won the World Series) scored only 21 more runs than the Rays in 2012. It bears mentioning that they scored fewer runs than the Cardinals, Rangers, Brewers, Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox and Diamondbacks.

It’s all but certain that Wil Myers will be a Ray by July. Though his potential impact is incalculable at the moment, it can be assumed that he will have a positive effect on Tampa Bay in 2013. In the end, Myers is projected to eventually be better than BJ Upton. Then there’s Yunel Escobar.

Whatever your opinion may be, Escobar is a 103 wRC+ hitter who can improve the Rays shortstop production. He’s projected to post a .304 BABIP/.276 BA/.344 OBP/.377 SLG/.317 wOBA line in 2013, while driving in 71 RBI. It can also be assumed that Ryan Roberts will come closer to, if not exceed, his established norms with more playing time. Roberts is projected to improve across the board as it relates to BABIP, batting average, on base percentage, slugging, and OPS. Additionally, it’s also been projected that his K% will drop by one percentage point, while his BB% is projected to increase by two percentage points, making him an even greater asset in the lineup

I’d also contend that the Rays infield looks significantly better in 2013 than it did in 2012. Tampa Bay committed 114 errors in 2012, more than any other team in the AL. Most of those errors were attributed to an infield that struggled to come to grips with the loss of Evan Longoria and the surprisingly unreliable Carlos Pena. The Rays gave up 59 unearned runs on the backs of those 114 errors. It can argued that with a healthier, more solid infield, the number of errors and unearned runs will drop, helping the Rays in the run differential column.

This is not to say nor imply, that Tampa Bay should suspend their search for someone to fill the DH position. Jim Thome is hungry for a ring, and could be an asset to the roster because of it, especially if he can be signed on the cheap. However, potentially platooning the DH role might not be the end of the world, or the end of a Rays playoff run, in 2013.

 

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