Year after year, the Rays pursue players coming off a poor season or even two, signing as many as possible to cheap contracts hoping that they can regain their previous form and provide much more value to the team that their salary would indicate. But as they do that, the Rays understand that oftentimes those players won’t pan out and they always need have backup plans in place. Then again, the backup plans are far from foolproof as well. On Saturday, the Rays announced that they have released designated hitter Jack Cust. Cust was having a rough swing, hitting just .174 (4 for 23) with 2 doubles but also 10 strikeouts against 4 walks, and the Rays apparently weren’t impressed enough by him to keep him in the organization. Joe Maddon said after Saturday’s game that the Rays wanted to give Cust time to join another team with some time left in camp, but that might just be a display of respect to a veteran player who simply doesn’t have it anymore.
The Rays’ signing of Cust clearly did not work out, but the fact that they’re able to cut ties with him owing him nothing tells you exactly how little financial risk there is with the Rays’ free agent strategy. When a player doesn’t work out, they can just cut him owing him nothing or close to it and move on. The Rays still need to find insurance for players like James Loney and Luke Scott, the former for simple performance and the latter for injuries, and maybe Cust being cut indicates that the Rays may have a little more trust in their internal options, such as Leslie Anderson, to contribute in such a role. One thing we do know for sure is that despite players like Cust not working out, the Rays will certainly keep attempting to find great values at minuscule costs on the free agent market knowing that maybe next time everything will come together for them. And of course, Cust isn’t nearly the only such player in Rays camp, with the Rays hoping for big bounce-backs from Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, and Loney and also having relievers Jamey Wright and Juan Carlos Oviedo in camp minor league contracts, and at little risk even between the five of them, the Rays get production that makes all the difference for their ballclub.
Anderson, who will turn 31 next week, had a ridiculous spring, hitting .396 (19 for 48) with 4 doubles, a double, a triple, and 12 RBI. But while Anderson was on fire at the plate, there have been serious doubts the last couple years that he can ever be a good enough all-around player to warrant time on the Rays. Anderson has no plate discipline, ranking first in at-bats among all Rays players this spring but just tied for 23rd in walks with a grand total of 1, and for his minor league career, he has struck out 170 times against just 74 walks. That is even worse because Anderson has almost no power, something first baseman need to have, and also because Anderson’s defensive value is average if you want to be optimistic. He has seen time in left and right field but is a poor defender at both positions and is just decent at first base. Anderson has a lot of things going against him and he will have to continue hitting for average like crazy to have any chance of overcoming them. If Loney struggles or Scott goes on the DL, it will be interesting to see whether the Rays will finally give Anderson a chance.
Figueroa, 25, may be the player among the five with the most promising major league future in a utility role. Figueroa performed well in spring training, going 10 for 32 (.313) with 5 doubles, 4 RBI, and a 3-3 strikeout to walk ratio, and he’s a player who stands out for his excellent plate discipline, strong ability to make contact, and versatility to play second base, third base, and shortstop so far with more positions to come. Joe Maddon had nothing but praise for Figueroa calling him a “big league player,” and with the Rays placing an emphasis on versatility, Figueroa could be an interesting player for the team moving forward.
Thompson, 33, saw time in the major leagues for the Rays last season, going 2 for 22 (.091) but stealing 6 bases as a pinch-runner, and he has hit a decent .263 (5 for 19) for the Rays this spring. Thompson has 464 career minor league stolen bases but seems unlikely to ever get more than cups of coffee in the major leagues thanks to a complete lack of power that hinders his ability to hit in the major leagues at all. However, Thompson could find himself back on the Rays’ roster by the end of the season should a need for a backup outfielder and pinch-runner arise once again.
De La Rosa, 30, also appeared in the major leagues last season, striking out 5 but allowing 7 runs on 7 hits in 5 innings pitched, and he similarly struggled this spring, managing just a 9.45 ERA in 8 appearances, although he did strike out 6 while walking 3. De La Rosa has a fastball that reaches 98 MPH but struggles to control it, and he has never been able to get his slider to be a second effective pitch for him. De La Rosa will look to continue improving at Triple-A and finally break into the Rays’ bullpen this season.
Finally Yates, who turns 26 tomorrow, actually was solid when the Rays sent him to the mound in spring training, managing a 1.93 ERA and a 6-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 7 appearances. Yates is interesting as a relief prospect thanks to a fastball that touches 95 MPH and also a sharp slider, and the key for him will be to continue working on locating both of those pitches. Yates will head to Triple-A this season and could surface in the Rays’ relief corps by the end of the year if he makes progress.