On October 6th, 2009, it was Game 163 between the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins to determine the champion of the AL Central and Ryan Raburn was at his apex. Raburn had a nice game at the plate, going 2 for 4 with 2 walks, but he’s best remembered for a defensive play he made in the 10th inning of that game. After Brandon Inge had given the Tigers the lead with an RBI double in the top of the inning, Matt Tolbert delivered a game-tying RBI single off Fernando Rodney that also moved Alexi Casilla to third base with the winning run with just 1 out in the inning. Then Nick Punto hit a line drive to fairly deep left field that looked to be a game-winning sac fly- but Raburn tracked it down and delivered a perfect strike to home plate to nab Casilla and extend the game. Despite Raburn’s best efforts, the Tigers lost 6-5 in 12 innings and it was all downhill from there for Raburn. After posting a .291/.359/.533 line (130 OPS+) with 16 home runs in 291 plate appearance for the Tigers in 2009, Raburn had another nice season for Detroit in 2010, posting a .280/.340/.474 line (118 OPS+) with 15 home runs in 410 plate appearances. But in 2011, he slipped to a .256/.297/.432 line (96 OPS+) in 418 PA’s, and then 2012 was a complete disaster for him between thumb and quad injuries and simply horrible performance as he posted just a .171/.226/.254 line (30 OPS+) in no puny sample size, 222 plate appearances. Raburn has seen his career completely come apart. And to get himself back together, it may be best for him to go back to where it all started.
Raburn was born in Tampa, Florida and went to Durant High School in Plant City, FL. The Devil Rays drafted Raburn out of Durant in the 18th round of the 1999 MLB Draft, but he did not sign. Raburn would spend time South Florida Community College in Avon Park, the University of South Florida in Tampa, and the University of Florida in Gainesville before the Tigers drafted him in the 5th round of the 2001 MLB Draft. It has been over 13 years since Raburn was drafted by the D-Rays. But the concept of playing for his hometown team will have to appeal to Raburn and the Rays like a lot of things about him as well.
Raburn, 32, has the type of versatility the Rays love, appearing in 100 or more career games at left field, second base, and right field while also seeing time at centerfield, third base, and first base. The problem is that he’s more of a Mark DeRosa-type utilityman than a Ben Zobrist- he’s a terrible defender and has to hit to maintain any value. He’s a fine defender in left field (6.1 UZR/150), but he’s horrific at second base (-21.1 UZR/150) and right field (-19.2 UZR/150). Raburn doesn’t have too big of a sample everywhere else, but he’s particularly incompetent at third base (.840 fielding percentage and a -47.9 UZR/150 in 33 games), doesn’t have the speed for centerfield, and his bat will never fit at first base. All that being said, the Rays could use at least a part-time outfielder, and his ability to play elsewhere else would only be a bonus.
The glaring issue is that Ryan Raburn is no guarantee to hit at all next season, let alone at the level he played from 2009 to 2010 or even in 2011. However, Raburn is coming off a year marred by injuries and bad luck, and he seems bound to regress towards his .256/.311/.430 career line next season. For his career, Raburn has been good against left-handed pitching, posting a .256/.324/.472 line in 730 plate appearances, and he’s not unplayable against righties either, managing a .257/.300/.400 line in 989 PA’s. Raburn has good power, managing 21 homers per 500 plate appearances from 2009 to 2011 and the same 21 homers per 500 PA’s against lefties for his career. Unlike most utility players, speed is not a part of Raburn’s game as he has stolen just 16 of 25 bases for his career. But the fact that Raburn trades speed for power is not such a bad thing. Raburn’s skill-set could actually be perfect for a platoon partnership with the lefty-hitting Sam Fuld, who has been better against righties and does have a game built around speed.
This offseason, Ryan Raburn isn’t worth any consideration for a major league contract, but on a low-risk minor league deal, he has ability to help a team next season, and the Rays could be a good fit. If Raburn gets back on track at the plate, he could be a platoon player for the Rays in the outfield and also receive starts at second base and all over the field. If he doesn’t hit, the Rays could cut ties with him without a hitch. Raburn has clear flaws and plenty of questions surrounding his offensive game, but he also has much higher upside than say Will Rhymes, who the Rays signed as a minor league free agent from the Tigers last offseason, because of his power and strong history against left-handed pitching. The Rays signing Ryan Raburn makes sense for both sides. With any luck, Raburn could reestablish his value as a productive platoon player and the Rays could get a solid contributor to their 2013 effort.