Back in the 1950’s, the Pittsburgh Pirates had just finished a season in last place when their future Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner came into Branch Rickey’s office and asked for a raise based on his good numbers. Mr. Rickey said no and Kiner threatened to hold out. Mr. Rickey’s reply was “Ralph, we finished in last place with you, and we can finish in last place without you.”
That’s where we are with the Tampa Bay Rays this season. The Rays are in dead last in the American League East and 12 games out of first place. They finished April and May with a 23-33 record and have lost the first four games in June. Last season, they finished April and May with a 30-25 record and needed 21-5 record in July to just squeak into the playoffs. The kind of numbers they have now will put a damper on even Joe Maddon’s cheery mood.
So, if the Rays are in last place with David Price and company and their hopes of making the playoffs dwindling with every loss, the team can finish out of the hunt without them. That logic could make the Rays, in baseball jargon, “sellers” by the July 31st trade deadline. However, the question is how many players do you trade and who do you move along?
My candidates would be Price, Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce. First of all, they make a combined $25.7 million in salary. If they are moved along by midseason, the Rays save about $13.0 million. All three are also due some form of raise next year ranging from Zobrist’s $500,000 to Price’s possible $5.0 million arbitration increase. The Rays are a small market team with a maxed out payroll, but trading these players would give them some relief now and some flexibility next offseason.
Secondly, Price and Zobrist would bring a haul of good prospects. Joyce’s value admittedly isn’t likely as large. James Shields and Wade Davis brought Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Florida State League All-Star Patrick Leonard. Price, maybe with Joyce thrown in, should bring in a hefty haul of his own. Zobrist, given his versatility and solid history, should garner a couple of an organization’s top 10 prospects.
Thirdly, trading the trio at midseason gives the receiving team two shots at the playoffs with them in the lineup, as all three are controlled through 2015. That gives these players a higher value than trading them in the offseason. It’s difficult to speculate who those trading partners might be. The Los Angeles Angels and the Texas Rangers are often talked about as likely candidates, and the next couple of months will dictate who else will be interested. Any one of a dozen teams could use Zobrist’s bat, defense, and versatility. Considering he can start at second base or a corner outfield spot and be a backup at shortstop, it wouldn’t be hard to find trade partners. And once again, Joyce’s value is up in the air, but a lot of teams could have interest in a lefty platoon bat with some pop.
Finally, the Rays have players to replace Price and Joyce and at a lower price tag. There are quality arms like Nate Karns at Durham and Jeremy Hellickson due back in late June. Remember that the Rays didn’t have Shields in 2013 and never missed a beat. Joyce, who is DHing and playing the outfield could be replaced by Brandon Guyer, Kevin Kiermaier, or Jerry Sands. Replacing Zobrist is a little more difficult in the short term, but talented middle infield prospects Hak-Ju Lee and Ryan Brett could contribute before too long.
I certainly would hate to break up the team. I loved this squad as it was put together in the offseason, but for some reason they haven’t jelled yet. With that in mind, if the Tampa Bay Rays don’t get on a serious roll in the next few weeks, it may be time to pull the trigger on a few deals.