We have talked about a multiplicity of players as possibilities to be the Tampa Bay Rays’ next first baseman. None of them, though, were designated for assignment like Garrett Jones just was. The Pittsburgh Pirates have lost all their leverage as their peruse trade offers and now is the perfect time for the Rays to pounce. Could the Rays make a trade happen?
After emerging as a late bloomer for the Pirates at 28 years of age, Jones is already 32. Combine that with the fact that Jones is coming off arguably his worst season in the big leagues, hitting to just a .233/.289/.419 line (99 OPS+) with 26 doubles and 15 home runs in 440 plate appearances, and suddenly you have a player that may very well be on the decline. Jones actually is eligible for arbitration two more times, but he certainly is not cheap is he is projected to make $5.3 million next season. Honestly, the Pirates have every reason to be designating him for assignment–if they did not, they could very well have been planning to non-tender him. But amid of the reasons to dislike Jones, there is still some promise in there.
The last five years, Garrett Jones has hit to a .256/.318/.462 line (113 OPS+) with an average of 26 doubles and 20 home runs per season. Even for a player who has spent most of his time in first base and right field, those are impressive numbers. But even on the offensive side, Jones has a few too many chinks in his armor. His OBP immediately jumps out as being low, and that has only gotten worse over time–his walk rate has gone down to 6.7% the last two seasons after being 9.5% the previous three, a statistically significant difference with a p-value of just .008 (123 to 1 odds). There is no reason to think he will revert back to his more patient ways. A lefty hitter, Jones also doesn’t hit left-handed pitching at all, managing just a .578 OPS against them for his career. He was bad enough against them that the Pirates had him bat with platoon advantage 95% of the time, the highest mark in all of baseball among batters who were not switch-hitters even if you set the minimum as low as 35 plate appearances. Jones doesn’t make up for his deficiencies with his defense either, managing just a -7.0 UZR/150 at first base and a -2.4 mark in right field in over 2000 innings at each position. What does his solid performance the last five years mean for Jones if he has so little going in his favor?
Here is what Garrett Jones could be for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013: a lefty bat with real power who could see time at first base, DH, and right field. The Rays would have some payroll considerations to worry about. The minimum he could make next season is $3.375 million, and you have to assume he wants at least the $4.5 million he made in 2013–but he could give the Rays a valuable hitter who could be the larger part of a platoon at first base or DH. If it goes well, they would even have his rights for another season. If Jones passes through waivers, he is exceedingly likely to decline his outright assignment and become a free agent. If he does, the Rays might be able to sign him as a free agent for an extreme bargain price. But doing so would risk one of the other 28 teams claiming him–can every team in baseball really pass on a player who slammed 27 home runs just two seasons ago?–and that may not be a worthwhile risk when the cost to acquire Jones should only be a lower-tier prospect. Acquiring Jones would cost little aside from cash, and it would not prohibit the Rays from making a higher-profile trade for a first baseman like Ike Davis or Lucas Duda from the New York Mets should they so desire. Jones has plenty of weaknesses, but he exactly the type of player the Rays like to target, one whose flaws belie the ability he still possesses. The Rays have so little to lose acquiring Garrett Jones, and whether by a trade or a waiver claim, they should do whatever they can within reason to bring him in.