So far this offseason, the Rays have made some significant moves to add to their team in 2014. They committed $21 million to re-sign James Loney, they extended David DeJesus, and they parted with a promising prospect in Todd Glaesmann and took on salary obligations to acquire Ryan Hanigan and Heath Bell. We have never seen the Rays be this aggressive in an offseason–but if you compare their offseason to what other teams have done, they have not made many waves. One way to change that, though, could be that they could sign a player that declined a qualifying offer.
The qualifying offer system is only in its second season that is put in use, but its effectiveness is already heavily debated. Players and agents argue that it is unfair, as it negatively impacts players’ value by tying them to draft pick compensation. Last season, we saw Kyle Lohse struggle to find a contract until Spring Training because of the loss of a draft pick that came along with signing him. This year, even more players that declined a qualifying offer could find themselves in a similar situation as Lohse. Because of this, their price might drop just enough so that the Rays can swoop in and make a bold move.
At first look the free agents that figure to be in this situation, Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew, and Nelson Cruz, figure to be out of the Rays price range, even if their price does fall. Also, the Rays already figure to have a record payroll in 2014, especially if David Price is retained. But, a new TV deal that nets teams an extra $25 million dollars a year could allow the Rays to stretch their payroll even further. If the Rays did extend and sign one of these players, they would probably have to decrease payroll significantly in 2015, but it could be worth it if the Rays can make a World Series run.
The Rays could give one of the previously mentioned players say a one-year deal worth say $10 to $12 million to give them a chance to rebuild their value with a contending team. But would the Rays be willing to give up a 1st round pick for one year of one of these players? There is an easy solution for that. The Rays can simply have a handshake agreement with the player and agent that they will decline a qualifying offer after the season. This way, the Rays gain a supplemental first round pick in 2015 and do not lose significant a significant amount of value. The players involved would rather avoid another qualifying offer situation, but with their markets looking weak, they could be willing to risk.
Here is a look at how each of the individual players mentioned fit in with the Rays.
The switch-hitting Morales would slot in immediately as the Rays full-time DH, and would also have the ability to play first base if Joe Maddon wanted to give James Loney a break against a tough left-hander. Morales would immediately fit in the middle of the Rays lineup, and would look great alongside Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, and Ben Zobrist. He would add some power to the lineup (22 and 23 homers the last two seasons), and while he strikes out a fair amount, he walks enough to where his OBP doesn’t hurt him. Having Morales in the lineup would be a nice help to the Rays’ 2014 World Series aspirations. The downside, however, is that Morales is a good all-around player, certainly not a great one, and it was crazy that he received a qualifying offer to begin with. It is hard to see the Rays giving him a contract that would make him one of the most highly-paid players with that the case, and it is unlikely that they would possibly get their draft pick back.
Similar to Morales, Cruz would slot in as the Rays’ full-time DH. Unlike Morales, he has the ability to play a corner outfield spot, albeit with poor defensive chops. The Rays would not need him in the outfield, but having the option never hurts. Cruz and Morales are both very similar hitters in that they hit for power and strike out, but Cruz is a right-handed hitter who has a longer track record of success. Adding Cruz to the lineup would give the Rays a scary offense entering 2014. If the price is right, Cruz probably makes the most sense out of these three players. Cruz might also come cheaper because of his 50-game suspension at the end of 2013 because of his connection with the biogenesis scandal. With Cruz another player who is strong at the plate but not elite, the Rays seem unlikely to give him that big one-year deal, but a two-year, $16 million contract could make sense (note, though, that the Rays gave that same deal to Pat Burrell). With Cruz’s options not emerging, could that be a deal he could really take?
The Rays are currently set at middle infield, but they could make room for Drew. He is likely the worst fit among these three players, but there is no one better than Joe Maddon at moving pieces around to give everyone their fair share of playing time. And if Drew is willing to work with the Rays, signing him could be a possibility. Using the DH spot and off-days for various players, the Rays could have Drew starting almost regularly at either second or third base with Ben Zobrist moving all over the field. Yunel Escobar would also need some days off, opening up Drew to play some shortstop as well. Drew is an above average hitter (109 wRC+), and would add to the Rays’ offensive effort–in essence he would replace Matt Joyce and whoever he would platoon with him in the lineup. He would also be a defensive upgrade over the players he replaces. Drew was also a good defensive shortstop in 2013 according to UZR, and he has the potential to be even better with enough work at second base. But this entire picture starts to fall apart when we factor in that Drew, like Joyce, is weak against left-handed pitching, and while he is not quite unplayable, the Rays would be overextending themselves for a non-optimal player. Drew’s defense is nice, but what they really need is a bat to DH, and Drew would not give them that.
The Rays never sign players that have the reputation of these three, but issues that arise from the qualifying offer system might just make it possible. Andrew Friedman isn’t going to throw money away for no reason, but it is having any of these three players would significantly help the Rays’ chances in 2014. The possibility of the Rays signing one of these players are very slim, but if their prices continue to drop, it is not something to discount entirely.