The Tampa Bay Rays traded catcher Jose Lobaton and prospects Felipe Rivero and Drew Vettleson to the Washington Nationals for right-hander Nate Karns primarily because they believe Karns can be a valuable member of their starting rotation the next few years. However, every deal has more than one angle to it, and this trade was no exception. In addition to the contributions that Karns gives them the next few years, the Rays will gain something else: 40-man roster flexibility that they will take advantage of immediately.
Jose Lobaton was occupying a dead 40-man roster spot. Every team wants to have a third catcher available in case of injury, and the Rays had that last year with Chris Gimenez on the 40-man roster even though he was in Triple-A nearly the entire season. But unlike Gimenez last season, Lobaton is out of options and there was no conceivable way that the Rays could keep him as depth. A trade became an inevitability, and on Thursday it finally became official. Now Lobaton’s 40-man roster spot has been replaced by Karns, who should pitch for the Rays at some point this season. But Lobaton’s 40-man roster spot was going to be empty anyway by the end of the spring. The bigger deal in the trade was that the prospect Rivero was also taking up space.
Felipe Rivero is a talented prospect. His fastball touches as high as 94 MPH, and he combines it with a good curveball and a solid changeup. He has issues commanding his pitches, but with time, he could be a decent starting pitcher or at least a bullpen arm. However, Rivero is not the type of player it is efficient to spend a 40-man roster spot on. Rivero pitched last season at High-A Charlotte and did not even do so very well, managing just a 91-52 strikeout to walk ratio in 127 innings pitched. That doesn’t mean that Rivero can’t overcome that, but at this point, he is a good, not great prospect who is the 40-man roster despite being at least two years from the major leagues. If he was a potential ace with a real chance to get there, that would be just fine. Unfortunately, he is not. Rivero is still just 22 years old and could have a promising major league career ahead of him. But if the right opportunity came along, the Rays were going to try to use Rivero’s 40-man roster spot on a player who could contribute in the major leagues sooner. When Karns entered the picture in a Lobaton trade, the Rays decided that trading Rivero was worth it.
The funny thing is that Rivero was not the only pitcher on the 40-man roster who pitched at High-A Charlotte last season and ended getting traded this offseason. The other was Jesse Hahn, who went to the San Diego Padres with Alex Torres. Hahn is two years older than Rivero, but he features significantly better stuff and dominated when he was on the mound in 2013. Unfortunately, continued recovery from Tommy John Surgery limited him to even 5 innings in just 2 of his 19 starts, and even so he still missed time with injury. Hahn still has a chance to be an excellent pitcher, but between his injury problems and the fact that he still hasn’t pitched above High-A at age 24, the odds are that he ends up in the bullpen. The chances of him reaching his upside has gone down precipitously, and like Rivero, he turned into a player on the 40-man roster who lacked both big league-readiness and the realistic ability to star. Despite Hahn’s lofty potential, the return for Torres and him, shows us why it made sense to trade him.
The 40-man roster spots of Torres and Hahn were replaced by Brad Boxberger and Logan Forsythe. Boxberger will not immediately replace Torres but should crack the Rays bullpen at some point this year. Forsythe, meanwhile, could make the team as a versatile backup infielder who hits lefties extremely well. The Rays traded a big league pitcher and one relatively far off for a big league utilityman and a near-ready relief arm. Looking at the trade from that perspective is ignoring the fact that Hahn’s upside is quite a bit higher than Forsythe’s. But that is where Matt Andriese comes in.
Andriese is also 24, but he is still a year away from needing to be placed on a 40-man roster yet on the cusp of the major leagues. Andriese stands out for his excellent sinker and solid trio of secondary offerings, and he could be big league-ready with a half-season more at Triple-A. Andriese doesn’t have Hahn’s ceiling, but he has a much better chance of helping a big league team the next two years, and exponentially better odds of doing so as a starting pitcher. And the fact that he is at this point in his development without needing a 40-man roster spot makes him extremely valuable. He does not have to be on the 40-man roster until the Rays actually decide to call him up. In the trade, the Rays turned Hahn’s roster spot into a decent big league player for now and a more talented one for the near future. We will have to see how Hahn turns out, but that was quite a coup.
Felipe Rivero and Jesse Hahn had trade value to the Nationals and Padres respectively, but from the Rays’ standpoint, dealing them not only netted them assets in return but 40-man roster spots to use more efficiently. Andrew Friedman and the Rays use every method possible to maximize their roster, and these two trades are perfect examples of exactly that.