A Creative Solution for the Tampa Bay Rays At First Base
By Drew Jenkins
With James Loney being a free agent, the Tampa Bay Rays are currently evaluating where they stand at the first base position. There are plenty of options at first base on the open market, many of which the Rays will certainly explore signing. However, the Rays have said they will be forced to decrease their payroll in 2014, which means more lucrative options at first base will likely be outside of the Rays’ budget. How could the Rays get production out of first base, but also save money to spend elsewhere?
The answer is that the Rays could elect to use Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce in a platoon at first base. The Rays have already said they will maintain Joyce for 2014, so they will have to find a spot for him to play. After the Rays decided to bring back David DeJesus for 2014, it was unclear that Joyce would have a roster spot. A perfect way to use him would be to teach him first base. Although Joyce has no prior professional experience at first base, it is a position that can be taught relatively quickly. While he will never be the defensive whiz that Loney is, with a good amount of work in spring training Joyce could become an adequate defender at first base. Plus, Joyce’s defense in the outfield has not been inspiring the past couple of years, as he has posted a -8.1 and -2.6 UZR/150 in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The Rays will not miss Joyce’s defense in the outfield. Joyce has posted a career .260/.354/.481 line against right handers, so he would be a good option as the left handed half of a platoon. While Joyce’s bat did slip in 2013, he still remained an effective hitter against righties; posting a .246/.348/.436 line against them. Each of the past three seasons, Joyce has gone on a hot streak to carry the Rays for weeks at a time. If Joyce could find a little more sustained success, he could give the Rays above-average production even at the more offensively-demanding first base position. Joyce would still have the ability to play the outfield, which is always a plus for the Rays. Overall, if the Rays could teach Joyce first base, he could be a solid platoon option there with a chance to be something more.
Sean Rodriguez, on the other hand, does have some experience at first base, as he has played 31 games at the position over the course of his career. Coming into 2013, the Rays expected to use Rodriguez at first base against some left-handed pitching. However, James Loney’s effectiveness against both lefties and righties in 2013 made Rodriguez not play quite as much first as the Rays expected coming into the season, although he did still appear in 23 games there. However, 2014 could be the year that Rodriguez finally does get his chance. While the Rays certainly still do value Rodriguez’s versatility, their best option might be to play Rodriguez at first more than any other position. Rodriguez’s career line of .252/.352/.398 against right handers is a very respectable–even in Loney’s bounce-back year against lefties, his OPS was .729 compared to Rodriguez’s .750 career mark. It’s great that Rodriguez has defensive versatility, but the Rays don’t need him to move around as much and playing less taxing positions could help him focus more at the plate. Rodriguez would make a good platoon mate with Joyce, and given his prior experience at first he could slot in quite nicely. And while Joyce may be a question mark defensively, Rodriguez has looked good in his brief time at first base and could get even better as he plays there more.
The best part about this platoon at first is that the Rays would be freeing up money elsewhere. The Rays could elect to spend this money on a DH, a late-innings reliever, another starter, or a platoon mate for DeJesus (although Rodriguez or Brandon Guyer could also fill this role). The Rays are always thinking about money, and having a Joyce-Rodriguez platoon at first is a viable option to free up salary to be spent elsewhere. If the Rays looked to go out of house for a solution at first base, they would be looking at paying more money. For example, the Rays have been rumored to be interesting in re-signing Loney, but he would likely take a commitment of a 2-year deal in the $12-16 million range. Instead, the Rays could spend this money on another position, or even try to retain David Price. You know Andrew Friedman will consider all of his options, and this will be one for him to keep in mind.