We’re approaching the end of spring training. The Rays roster appears to be just about set. Now we just have to wait out the lull of the final few days of spring training before the start of the regular season… unless there’s a trade. This is Andrew Friedman and the Rays we’re talking about here. Anything can happen. Let’s look back on previous Rays trades during spring training and the early regular season and see if those can provide us any insight into what the Rays might do now.
Back in 1999, the Rays, under general manager Chuck LaMar, the Rays made their first spring training trade on 3/29/99, dealing starting pitcher Jason Johnson to the division rival Baltimore Orioles in exchange for outfielder Danny Clyburn and a player to be named that ended up as Bolivar Volquez. In 1999, the Rays actually had some starting pitching depth and felt that it could ship away Johnson, a 25 year old pitcher who was just as bad as whoever else the fledgeling Devil Rays threw out onto the mound, posting a 5.70 ERA in 13 starts. As it turned out, Johnson struggled for two more seasons in Baltimore before turning into a two-time 10-game winner and retiring after an 11 year career having made over 16 million dollars. Clyburn had been dynamite for Baltimore the previous two years at Triple-A and the D-Rays thought he could step into an outfield spot for them. Instead, he retired after the 1999 season for personal reasons after just 28 games in St. Petersburg. Volquez, meanwhile, flopped as a shortstop prospect before showing promise when the Rays converted him to the mound, posting a 2.43 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts per 9 innings in 19 relief appearances at Rookie ball in 2001. But Volquez never made it out of A-ball and retired in 2004 at age 24. The Rays dealt from a position of strength, starting pitcher, in exchange for two (supposedly) promising prospects, but the trade did not work out well.
Not too much more than a year later, on 4/11/00, the D-Rays made a move that did not make any baseball sense whatsoever, acquiring a washed-up Dwight Gooden from the Astros in exchange for cash considerations. Gooden was horrendous in 8 starts for the Rays, posting a 6.63 ERA and allowing 14 home runs in just 36.2 IP. Of course the Rays released him then and somehow he became a solid swingman for the Yankees the rest of the season, posting a 3.36 ERA. Just the D-Rays’ luck. But that’s what you get for trying to pull a publicity stunt.
On March 24th, 2003, LaMar realized something: he had an absolutely stacked outfield and absolutely no reason to hold onto to marginal outfielder Jason Conti. For once, he was right, as his outfield consisted of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Aubrey Huff. I’d be hard-pressed to believe though that the best he could get for Conti, who had hit .258 with 15 doubles in 78 games for the D-Rays in 2002, was catcher Javier Valentin to back up Toby Hall. Valentin left as a free agent following the season before carving out a solid career for himself with the Cincinnati Reds. LaMar was right on regarding Conti, though- he played in just 52 more major league games and was out of baseball by 2007.
I have no idea what to make of the D-Rays-Dodgers trade from 4/3/04. The D-Rays shipped Antonio Perez, a weak hitter, but a utility infielder with some speed, to Los Angeles for outfielder Jason Romano, who couldn’t hit at all and possessed no speed. Both players never played a major league game after 2006, so this trade was pretty inconsequential, but still bizarre. Perez’s claim-to-fame was that he was traded for Ken Griffey Jr., Lou Pinella, and Andre Ethier. This trade was nearly as bad as the ones LaMar traded in the middle of the season, when he claimed some guy named Jose Bautista off wavers before trading him to the Kansas City Royals for cash considerations.
Here’s another crazy trade from the LaMar era. On March 31st, 2004 the Rays traded RHP Jorge Sosa to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Nick Green. Sosa was another horrific D-Rays pitcher, while Green wasn’t hopeless as a shortstop prospect yet. The significance of this trade: both players had their fifteen minutes of fame, although Sosa’s happened quickly while Green had to wait a while. In 2004, Sosa improbably led the NL in winning percentage at .833 with a 13-3 record and a 2.55 ERA in a swingman role for the Braves before reverted back to his usual, terrible self. He finished his MLB career in 2010 with a 4.72 ERA, only that low because of his one great season. Green, we know, caught fire for the Boston Red Sox for a stretch in 2009 before returning to being Nick Green.
Eight days later, LaMar pulled off another trade, although this one may have some sense behind it. While the Devil Rays were a bad team, they always seemed to have something exciting about them every year. In 2005, it was shockingly their bullpen, led by Danys Baez (2.86 ERA, 43 saves), Chad Orvella (3.60 ERA), Joe Borowski (3.82 ERA), and a relatively young Trever Miller (4.06 ERA). Even though Seay had been lights out for them in 2003, posting a 2.38 ERA and 3.38 FIP, but they felt that he was expendable and shipped him off to the Rockies for outfielder Reggie Taylor. Seay went on to get demolished by Mile High (8.49 ERA) before finding himself in 2007 with the Tigers, posting a 2.33 ERA and 2.56 FIP in 58 relief appearances, and then he closed out his career in 2009 was a couple more solid but nowhere near spectacular years for the Tigers. Taylor was a very interesting acquisition by the D-Rays’ regime. In 2002 for the Reds, Taylor had shown some nice all-around talent, hitting .254 with 15 doubles, 9 homers, and 11 stolen bases in 311 plate appearances, and the Rays hoped to find lightning in a bottle with him. Instead, Taylor played just 11 games for the D-Rays and never played in the majors again. Not everything was LaMar’s fault.
Now we finally arrive at the Andrew Friedman era. On April 6th, 2006, Friedman traded relief prospect for relief prospect, trading Jose De La Cruz for Marcos Carvajal. Just two years earlier, in 2004, De LA Cruz had dominated at Short Season-A Hudson Valley, posting a 1.10 ERA and a 2.03 FIP in 19 relief appearances. But in 2005, De La Cruz had slipped to a 3.94 ERA and a 3.43 FIP at Low-A, and Friedman decided it was the right time to deal him. Friedman was right- De La Cruz could not handle Triple-A and retired after the 2007 season. Carvajal, on the other hand, broke into the big leagues in 2005 with 39 games at age 20 with the Rockies, and he struggled, posting a 5.09 ERA and 1.4 HR/9, but he did strike out 8.0 batters per 9 innings while walking just 3.6, and Friedman’s thinking was that if the Rays could refine his command, he could be an effective reliever. Friedman started Carvajal in Double-A in 2006, hoping he would force his way up to Triple-A and then the big leagues, but that never materialized and the Rays let Carvajal leave on waivers after the season. Carvajal played just 3 more major league games and retired following the 2009 season. This trade was a good thought by Friedman with little risk and potentially a nice reward, but it simply didn’t work out.
But the most pertinent trade to our discussion occurred on 4/5/09 just prior to the start of the 2009 season. Jason Hammel was in competition with then-rookie Jeff Niemann for Rays’ final rotation spot, but after Niemann won the competition, the Rays shipped Hammel to the Colorado Rockies for pitching prospect Aneury Rodriguez. Hammel was a living, breathing reliever for the Rays in 2008, posting a 4.60 ERA in 40 appearances, but he did turn into a 10-game winner with the Rockies in both 2009 and 2010, posting a 4.57 ERA and a 3.76 FIP. Rodriguez was (and still is) a projectable 6’4″ right-hander who threw a fastball in the low-90’s along with a nice slider, and Friedman hoped he could develop into a productive starter. Rodriguez was never able to improve his command very much and struggled as he progressed through the minors and after being a Rule 5 pick by the Astros after the 2010 season.
Mostly this was just a fun look back, but this final trade could give is some insight as to what the Rays are going to do here. 2009 was a somewhat similar situation for the Rays as 2011. Entering 2009, the Rays had Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza at the top of their rotation, David Price getting set for his rookie year, and Hammel and Niemann competing for the final rotation spot with Andy Sonnanstine forced into a swingman role. The Rays also had Wade Davis on the cusp of the big leagues. That season, things did not go as planned at all as Kazmir fell apart and Price struggled as a rookie, huge reasons why the Rays missed the playoffs by a longshot. Let’s compare that 2009 projected rotation with the Rays’ projected 2012 rotation.
Unlike Kazmir, 2012 James Shields is coming off his best season in the big leagues, and although we can expect a regression, he has little injury risk and we know he’ll still give us a nice 220 innings. 2012 David Price was significantly better than Shields was in 2008 and we expect a huge 2012 for him, although similar to 2012 Shields, 2009 Shields was coming off a breakout season, posting a 3.56 ERA. (2009 Shields wasn’t bad, posting a 4.14 ERA, but his regression was a factor in the Rays’ frustration season.) Jeremy Hellickson doesn’t have the body of work that 2009 Garza had under his belt, but he has much more upside and as long as he can make the necessary adjustments in 2012 (specifically as I’ve said before, mixing in his curveball more often), he’ll be much better than 2009 Garza. Matt Moore and 2009 David Price are perfect parallels, being phenoms hailed as the next great lefty, and the Rays have to hope Moore doesn’t go through nearly as many growing pains as Price did in ’09. The 2012 Niemann-Wade Davis competition mirrors the 2009 Hammel-Niemann competition, with the notable exception being that in 2012 both Niemann and Davis have proven themselves to be at least major league starters while Hammel and Niemann in 2009 were relative unknown quantities. For the swingman role, we have 2012 Alex Cobb pushed into a 2009 Sonnanstine-type position, and then there’s the matter of the prospects. The Rays have no 2009 Wade Davis right now, no pitcher that’s on the cusp of the big leagues and is guaranteed a rotation spot when he arrives. Alex Torres, Chris Archer, Alex Colome, et all are solid prospects, but none of them are generating the type of buzz we’ve seen from true topflight Rays pitching prospects.
I don’t think the Rays make a move. After seeing how a seemingly full-proof rotation can fall apart in 2009, I think the Rays would rather play it safe and have a guy like Davis or Niemann providing insurance in the bullpen. If the Rays do make a trade, it’s more likely for a catching (or even pitching) prospect than for a major league catcher like a Kurt Suzuki or Geovany Soto unless the Rays can get one of them for say Davis straight-up because the Rays wold rather trade present value for future upside than trade a major leaguer with more ability for a major leaguer with less ability, disregarding positional need. There’s no catching prospect screaming to the Rays “trade for me! trade for me!” and the Rays don’t like Suzuki and Soto’s defense and lack of discipline. I think the Rays stand pat and play it safe because you never know what could happen with starting pitchers.