Decision Time for Rays As Non-Tender Deadline Approaches
By Robbie Knopf
The deadline for MLB teams to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players is 11:59 PM on Friday night and the Rays have some decisions to make. They have two players to make tough choices on and another few that deserve at least some thought. The Rays have plenty of needs to fill this offseason and how they will elect to fill them starts now.
Infielder Ryan Roberts, who turned 32 in September, was acquired by the Rays at the trade deadline for infielder Tyler Bortnick made $2,015,000 in 2012 in his first go through arbitration as a Super-Two. Roberts is coming off a sub-par year at the plate in 2012 between the Diamondbacks and the Rays, posting a .235/.296/.360 line (78 OPS+) with 19 doubles, 12 homers, 52 RBI, 10 of 16 stolen bases, and 92 strikeouts against 40 walks in 143 games and 489 plate appearances. That was one year after he broke out to the tune of a .249/.341/.427 line (108 OPS+) with 19 homers and 18 stolen bases for the D-Backs in 2011. Roberts, previously known as a lefty masher, actually was better against right-handed pitching, posting a .661 OPS (89 sOPS+) compared to .648 (72 sOPS+) versus lefties. For his career, Roberts has a .688 OPS against righties compared to .774 against lefties, so his 2012 performance could very well have been fluky and the Rays can look for more production from him next season as that evens out. After such a great year in 2012, Roberts may have gotten a little tentative in 2012 from the added pressure on him as his strikeout rate climbed from 17.7% to 18.8% and his walk rate fell from 11.9% to 8.2%, and that sapped some of his power in addition to his OBP. Looking at his numbers, the hope for the Rays if they keep him is that Robert will be more comfortable in 2012 and have better luck on his way to providing the Rays with above-average offense at second base. But offense isn’t the only part of the equation for Roberts. Roberts was primarily a third baseman for the D-Backs in 2011 and 2012 and UZR considers him a solid defender there, giving him a 2.9 UZR/150. But after the Rays acquired him, even though Evan Longoria was still out and the Rays had to fill his spot, the Rays played Roberts at second base and it’s clear that they knew something others didn’t as Roberts showed outstanding play there. He has an 11.5 UZR/150 in over 1000 innings at the position, enough to comfortably consider him a plus defender. Roberts is expected to make around 3 million dollars next year, but I can’t see the Rays non-tendering him. They have enough needs in their lineup, and Roberts can give them above-average all-around production at second base between his defense and the expected rebound from his offense. If the Rays non-tender Roberts, can they really find a cheaper middle infield option who’s as good? The 3 million dollars stands out in the Rays’ payroll, but Roberts is good enough to deserve it and has the ability to be a solid contributor to their effort next season.
Outfielder Ben Francisco, who turned 31 in October, was acquired by the Rays on August 31st for right-hander Theron Geith and made $1,537,500 in 2012 in his second time in arbitration. Between the Blue Jays, Astros, and Diamondbacks, Francisco posted a .240/.285/.385 line (83 OPS+) with 14 doubles, 4 homers, 15 RBI, and 49 strikeouts against 13 walks in 82 games and 207 plate appearances. Francisco slammed 15 homers in both 2008 and 2009, but for his career, his OPS+ is just 101, not good enough for a starting corner outfielder type. For his career, Francisco, a right-handed hitter, has almost no platoon split, but in 2012, similar to Roberts, he was better against righty pitchers, posting a .713 OPS (102 sOPS+) compared to just a .626 mark (66 sOPS+) against lefties. That’s likely an aberration- his BAbip was .338 against righties and just .254 against lefties- but the bottom line is that Francisco is a below-average player. At all three outfield positions, Francisco is comfortably below average, managing a -7.0 UZR/150 overall. His career UZR/150 is a decent -0.3 in left field, but his UZR is -5.6 there the last three seasons. The last three seasons, Francisco’s wins above replacement per Baseball-Reference is -1.9, and Fangraphs has him at 0.3. That’s not something you want to see even from a backup. Francisco used to be a pretty good player, but he doesn’t do anything well and the Rays have better options for cheaper. There’s no way Brandon Guyer, the rookie outfielder who will turn 27 in January, could possibly be worse than Francisco. It would be downright shocking if the Rays tender Francisco a contract tonight.
Those are the big two decisions for the Rays and we can gloss over David Price, Burke Badenhop, Matthew Joyce, and Sam Fuld because they’ll all surely be retained. But Jeff Niemann, Sean Rodriguez, and Reid Brignac all deserve a moment of discussion.
Niemann, who will turn 30 in February, made 2.5 million dollars in 2012 and did pitch well when healthy in 2012, posting a 3.08 ERA and a 34-12 strikeout to walk ratio in 8 starts and 38 innings pitched. He has been a solid starter for the Rays the last four years- when he has been able to stay on the mound. As we talked about exactly a week ago, there’s no point of the Rays trading Niemann right now with his value at its lowest after an injury-riddled year, and non-tendering Niemann would mean that the Rays wouldn’t even get anything for him. The Rays’ best bet is to tender Niemann a contract, let him reestablish his value, and after a hopefully healthy year, make a decision about what to do with him next offseason. The only reason to non-tender him would be injury concern, especially after he was sidelined with a rotator cuff strain, and if he is non-tendered, that is definitely what’s going on.
Rodriguez, who will turn 28 in April, played himself right out of a starting job in 2012, managing just a .213/.281/.326 line (71 OPS+) in 342 plate appearances while proving himself incapable of profiling long-term defensively at shortstop and third base. Nevertheless, he’s versatile, has shown some power and speed in the past, and he will make just a touch over a million dollars in his first time through arbitration. Hard to see the Rays non-tendering him.
And finally, Brignac, who will turn 27 in January, went just 2 for 21 in the big leagues in 2012 and his arbitration salary will remain close to the league minimum. He may never hit, but he’s a plus defender at shortstop and second base and there’s still some hope that something will click for him at the plate after he posted a 92 OPS+ with 8 home runs for the Rays in 2010 and showed improved plate discipline at Triple-A this season. Brignac is out of options, so he’s going to have to make the team out of spring training, but there’s no reason not to give him the league minimum for now and see how he does in spring training before deciding what to do with him. He should be tendered a contract as well.
At the end of the day, the only major question is Roberts- whether he’s tendered a contract or not will determine whether the Rays will pursue a middle infielder this offseason. The Rays are evaluating their roster to determine the best way to construct it next season, and this non-tender deadline will provide us with some insight into how the Rays will go about retooling their team as they hope to return to the playoffs next season.