When the Rays saw right-hander Juan Carlos Oviedo on the market last offseason, they saw a talented pitcher available at a fraction of his worth. He was coming off Tommy John Surgery and was not expected to pitch until September if at all, but the Rays adjusted to those circumstances just fine. They gave a Oviedo a second year option worth $2 million for the second year, and the only thing they had to do to retain him is pay him the big league minimum to stay on their 60-day disabled list all season. But Oviedo didn’t even come close to pitching, never even appearing in a rehab game, and the Rays validated the notion that Oviedo failed to live up to even the low standards set for him for this season when they declined his option. But then they appeared to reverse gears entirely, signing Oviedo to a major league contract last Friday. Why the sudden shift?
The Rays’ primary goal with all their signings is to maximize the possibility of reward at the lowest possible cost. In the case of Oviedo, the Rays pushed the envelope a little bit more. $2 million is a small amount, but the Rays thought they could get him for even less, and it turned out they were right. The Rays may have been able to so because they offered him a major league deal when other teams only made minor league offers. Minor league deals are nice because not only do you have a small base contract, but also that value only applies if the player cracks your roster out of spring training. But when you have a player who you are reasonably confident will make your team, the distinction between a big league deal and a minor league one is less important. The Rays are taking a slight risk with Oviedo’s deal, but when we are only talking about $1 million or less, that is something even the Rays have no hesitation doing.
The Rays are signing Oviedo believing that he will be healthy and close to his usual self next season. If they did not think that, we have to think they would not have made this deal. An interesting question, though, is whether the Rays would have preferred things happening the way they did or whether they would rather have seen Oviedo get healthy enough to make four or five solid appearances in September, eliciting higher interest that would have caused the Rays to pick up their option on him. That would have increased their risk because they would have owed Oviedo more money, but they also would have been more confident in his ability to stay healthy and perform. If the Rays had a choice, it is hard to imagine them turning down the additional confidence- it may be double as much money, but it is still only a million dollars. So how do the Rays react since that is not truly the case?
Throughout baseball, there is a bias towards retaining the players you have. It is certainly understandable. Fans want to see their favorite players stay around, and teams would rather deal with the devil they know than the devil they don’t. For the Rays, however, that bias is not quite as prevalent. They went out of their comfort zone to extend Evan Longoria and maybe their Scott Kazmir extension was a little too motivated by their emotions, but you would be hard-pressed find another time that they re-signed a player on a deal that was not extremely team-friendly. In fact, the Rays have become infamous for trading their stars and letting them leave through free agency. Viewing the Oviedo re-signing and the Luke Scott re-up from last year from that perspective leads us to a defining characteristic of the Rays in their free agent dealings: they may bring some players back, but every decision is entirely independent. Scott and Oviedo may not have lived up to expectations in their first year with the team, but they were brought back for no reason other than that the Rays looked at all their options and decided that they were worth it. This lost year for Oviedo in 2013 is in the past. Now he is the latest low-cost relief signing by the Rays, and time will tell whether he is latest minimal-risk deal that plays a major role in the Rays’ success.