The other day, the news broke that the New York Yankees had signed Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts to platoon at second base and fill Robinson Cano’s shoes. From a Rays fan’s perspective, the signing of Johnson was especially humorous–the mighty Yankees were going to sign a Rays castoff? Johnson played decently in 2013, filling in at second, left, and occasionally third and DH, and for a while he was one of the Rays’ hottest hitters. However, once Wil Myers came up, and Matt Joyce became the first left handed bat in left and off the bench, Johnson’s days with the Rays were numbered. As expected, the Rays didn’t re-sign Johnson. Instead, in a strange twist of fate, he will head to the Yankees.
Once again the Yankees signed a player that couldn’t cut it on the Rays’ roster. Last year, the Yankees, desperate to fill openings caused by injury, signed Ben Francisco and Reid Brignac to fill holes at outfield and shortstop. Neither lasted more than a handful of games. To be fair, Johnson can actually hit, and the versatility he displayed with the Rays last season made him an intriguing signing. But what does it say about the Yankees’ player development process that they’re signing players the Rays no longer need?
One thing it says is that the Rays are well positioned to compete for first in the AL East in 2014. Both the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox were active during the offseason. The Yankees, stung at not making the playoffs and with no minor league prospects ready to take major league jobs, signed Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann and could look to sign a pitcher like Masahiro Tanaka or Matt Garza as well. The Red Sox signed Mike Napoli and A.J. Pierzynksi and they will look to make more moves as well, with an extension for David Ortiz possibly on their agenda. But the Rays, with much less to spend, have not stood pat. They re-signed James Loney and David DeJesus to three year deals, and they quickly extended Ryan Hanigan when they acquired him as well. They added Heath Bell, Juan Carlos Oviedo, and Mark Lowe to bolster the bullpen. Most importantly, they are in no rush to trade David Price, and if they do, it will only be for a massive return. The Rays’ brain trust knows that strong pitching and defense remains the team’s best hope to win the pennant, and they are going to do everything in their power to be right in the thick of things again.
Kelly Johnson heading to the Yankees is just the latest reminder that the Rays are now on the same level as the Yankees and Red Sox. No matter how this offseason finishes, whether the Yankees or Red Sox make another big signing or the Rays trade Price, the AL East will be at least a three-horse race and do not count out the Tampa Bay Rays.