Two days ago, the Rays acquired Jesse Crain from the Chicago White Sox for future considerations, and that may end up being the biggest deadline deal the Rays have ever made as a buyer if he gets healthy and pitches the way he’s capable. For a Rays team that so rarely makes move at the deadline, it was the closest thing to a blockbuster they have ever had. But this year, unlike every other year, the Rays are not done.
Yesterday, Ryan Roberts was pulled from the Rays’ Triple-A game, and the reason appears to be that there’s a chance he may be called up because of a trade. What? Who are the Rays trading all of a sudden? Marc Topkin speculates that it may be Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, or Kelly Johnson. How would any of those deals make sense? Let’s go player by player and discuss what the situation is.
Sean Rodriguez: Rodriguez has two big things going for him as a player: his versatility and his ability to hit left-handed pitching. This season, Rodriguez has seen time at left field, first base, shortstop, right field, and second base and hit to a .260/.330/.410 line in 113 plate appearances against lefties. Rodriguez is a valuable piece of the Rays’ roster, but at the same time, how much more does he gives the Rays than Roberts? If Roberts was in the major leagues instead of Rodriguez, he would start at second base against lefties with Ben Zobrist moving to right field, and that would not be an issue at all. Essentially, the Rays are wasting Rodriguez’s most valuable asset, his ability to not just be a utility player who can hit lefties but also play an adequate shortstop. If a team that values Rodriguez more highly than they do made them the right offer, you would have to think that they will pull the trigger and call up Roberts to replace him without a hitch.
Matt Joyce: Joyce is basically the anti-Rodriguez, having little versatility as he plays only the corner outfield spots and only hits right-handed pitchers. Being able to hit righties is more importatn than hitting lefties, but on this Rays team, Joyce is rendered totally redundant becaus of Johnson. Joyce is having a bit of a down year, and his OPS against right-handers is .798. Coincidentally, that’s the exact same OPS that Kelly Johnson has against righties, but he also hits lefties solidly and can play second and third base in addition to left field. The fact that Joyce can play right field and Johnson can’t is totally irrelevant thanks to Ben Zobrist and Rodriguez. Add in the fact that Joyce is starting to get expensive, having made $2.45 million this year in his first time through arbitration, and he’s certainly a player the Rays would consider trading at the right place. It would seem bizarre for the Rays to be trading a guy like Joyce as they’re contending, but thanks to Johnson and Luke Scott, he would be missed far less than you would expect.
Kelly Johnson: We just talked a second ago about how Johnson makes Joyce redundant. But Johnson may actually be the most tradeable of any of the players we’re talking about. First off, Rodriguez and Joyce just went through arbitration for the first time and have two more years of team control each while Johnson is a free agent after the year. And then there is the fact that Johnson’s newfound versatility could appeal him to a multiplicity of different clubs. Johnson could be one team’s answer in left field, another’s at second base, and a third’s at third base after he has played all three positions capably. That versatility has certainly made him very valuable to the Rays, but with Luke Scott playing the way he is and Joyce doing fine, the Rays certainly have no obligation to keep him if a team blows them away with an offer. Making Johnson a more versatile player has been a genius move for the Rays because not only has he been valuable to them this year, but it has created more suitors for him should they choose to deal him and a greater chance of getting significant value in return.
The bottom line for all three players is the same: the Rays could afford to lose them without taking a major hit on their major league roster if the right trade package comes along. But why would the Rays possibly be selling? In reality, the Rays wouldn’t really be selling but trading a surplus player for a prospect that can make them even better in the long term. They certainly have no obligation to do any of this, and if they don’t get blown away by an offer, they most certainly won’t. But if you can get a great prospect for a player whose loss would barely affect your team at all, how do you turn it down? We will have to see whether a team is willing to knocks the Rays socks off with a trade package and surprise everyone by trading a key piece of their team even as they hope to go the postseason and beyond this year.