The 2013 season is just over a month away, and it’s shaping up to be quite exciting for the Tampa Bay Rays. Pitching will remain the Rays’ calling card as their rotation remains outstanding and the bullpen features electric arm after electric arm, but what might be most interesting is the Rays offense. B.J. Upton is gone, but the Rays have brought in Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson, giving them the chance to have their best offense in ages if Escobar and Johnson can bounce back from tough 2012 seasons to play as good as they’re capable of playing. But as it stands right now, the Rays have a problem on their hands: so many of their key hitters are left-handed.
Between Johnson, Matthew Joyce, Luke Scott, and James Loney, the Rays have four lefty hitters who could very well be vulnerable to left-handed pitching. Johnson actually has a better career OPS versus lefties than righties before that trend shifted the last couple seasons, and Scott had been versus lefties for his career prior to falling apart against them in 2012, so there’s reason for optimism that they’ll be OK. But Joyce and Loney have never really hit lefties and while Joyce is young and talented enough to still deserve a chance, the Rays need to have players to take some time away from them against left-handed pitching. Who are those players at this point? One of them will Ryan Roberts, and the other is going to be either Sean Rodriguez or Brandon Guyer. Roberts’ career OPS versus lefties is a nice .774 (although he was bizarrely better against righties in 2012), and he looks like he should be a good option. Rodriguez’s career OPS against lefties is .751, and that’s just as impressive as Roberts when adjusting for ballpark (Roberts played a lot his games in the hitter-friendly Chase Field). However, he has slowly but surely fallen off a cliff offensively the last three years, declining in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS, home runs, and stolen bases each season, and even though he hit lefties well in 2010 and 2011, he dropped off to just a .665 OPS against them in 2012. Rodriguez is a major question mark and do the Rays really want him seeing a lot of time against left-handed pitching? Guyer, meanwhile, is completely unproven, seeing just cups of coffee with the Rays the last two seasons, and although he’s been excellent at Triple-A, managing a .309/.381/.510 line with 17 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 540 plate appearances and mashing to a .339/.421/.554 line against lefties, he’s coming off shoulder surgery and it has yet to be seen what he can give the Rays at this point. Essentially the Rays have Roberts and then one of two question marks in line for playing time against left-handed pitching. Is that really going to be good enough? Should the Rays heavily consider acquiring a big right-handed bat to really solidify their lineup versus lefties?
One big right-handed bat that is a possible trade candidate is the Chicago Cubs‘ Alfonso Soriano. Soriano has been a player we’ve already discussed multiple times as a player the Rays could acquire Soriano is 37 years old, but could it finally happen now? Soriano is coming off a strong season in 2012, posting a a .262/.322/.499 line (121 OPS+) with 33 doubles, 32 homers, 108 RBI, and 6 of 8 stolen bases in 151 games and 615 plate appearances, and the Cubs don’t really need them as they’re in a rebuilding phase and they don’t necessarily need him because they’re in a rebuilding phase and might as well give top prospect Brett Jackson a chance for major league playing time. There are two big catches, though: Soriano has two years and $36MM left on his contract with the Cubs, and he also has a full no-trade clause. However, the Cubs would be willing to pick up as much as $26MM of the $36MM Soriano is owed, and Soriano is reportedly willing to accept trades to 6 or 7 teams, and one of those teams could be the Rays. The Cubs might want a pretty decent prospect from the Rays in exchange for picking up the money left on his contract, say a pitcher like Alex Colome who’s talented but also seems likely to end up in the bullpen, but if the Rays truly believe Soriano can make a significant impact on their team, that likely won’t be a problem, as they showed when they traded infield prospect Derek Dietrich for Yunel Escobar earlier this offseason. But how would Soriano fit in for the Rays at this point?
Soriano has played primarily left field the past seven seasons, and while his defense has been occasionally maligned, it has overall been pretty good. In 7680.2 career innings in left field, Soriano has a 12.4 career UZR/150 and even an 11.8 mark in 2012. Baseball Prospectus has given Soriano a 6.9 FRAA since he moved to left field in 2006, considering him much closer to average but still a good defender overall. If the Rays put Soriano in left field, what he would give them at the plate would easily outweigh any defensive concerns they may have. But wait a second- the Rays don’t have left field open for everyday play! At this point, the Rays have nine players that they know will be starting for them in most of their games: Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, Matthew Joyce, Yunel Escobar, Luke Scott, Kelly Johnson, Jose Molina, and James Loney. Molina will be at catcher, Loney will be at first base, Escobar will be at shortstop, and Jennings will be in centerfield. That leaves Zobrist, Johnson, and Joyce, with either Zobrist at second base, Johnson in left field, and Joyce in right field or Johnson at second base, Zobrist in right field, and Joyce in left field. Where in the world would Soriano fit in there? Against left-handed pitching, Soriano and Roberts could replace two of Loney, Scott, Johnson, and Joyce (positions don’t matter quite as much because of the versatility of Zobrist and Johnson). But what about against right-handed pitching? Soriano is a better hitter than say Loney and Johnson, but if the Rays were going to trade for Soriano, why did they sign them? Unless the Rays reverse course and get rid of Loney, move Scott to first base, and have Soriano, Johnson, and Joyce all seeing time between the corner outfield spots and DH, the Rays don’t have room for Soriano.Soriano was a fit for the Rays most of the offseason. But at this point, they simply don’t have room and them trading for Soriano looks exceedingly unlikely.
Alfonso Soriano may still end up as a Tampa Bay Ray by the end of 2013. If one of their starting players doesn’t produce up to par and the Rays don’t believe Wil Myers is ready, that might be enough for them to execute a trade for Soriano. However, that’s something more likely to happen around the trade deadline and it’s too early to think about anything like that. The bottom line is that for better or worse, the Rays have their lineup locked in for at least the early part of the season, and while the acquisition of a big right-handed bat seems like something that would help the Rays, it’s now happening right now. The Rays have made their choices this offseason, and acquiring a player like Soriano was not the way they decided to go.