The Tampa Bay Rays’ desire to lower payroll heading into 2015 is obvious, but as I previously examined it will likely take some effort to do so. The Rays will need to execute a couple of trades in order to reach their desired payroll, and they could do this with a couple of classic salary dump trades. Who could they look to do this with?
Balfour signed with the Rays last offseason, and it was exciting at the time. The Rays finally had a proven closer, and having Balfour around would allow every member of the bullpen to slide into a defined role. Also, Balfour’s $12 million salary over two years seemed more than reasonable for a pitcher with his track record.
But, Balfour struggled mightily in 2014, as he posted a 4.91 ERA, an 8.2 K/9, and a 5.9 BB/9. This makes his $7 million salary for 2015 seem almost unbearable for the Rays, especially when considering that they want to lower their payroll. Thus, the Rays could try to send him to another team in a trade-of-scenery deal and take on another bad contract, or they could pair him with a prospect to convince a team to eat most of his salary. Balfour would likely get plenty of interest in these types of trades, as he has a strong track record and he struck out hitters at a decent clip in 2014.
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Escobar had a great season in 2013, when he played well above-average defense and was about average with the bat en route to a 3.9 fWAR. But after signing an extension early on this year, Escobar took a step back. He hit just .258/.324/.340 with a 5% below league-average 95 wRC+. His -26.0 UZR/150 is a horrendous mark (small sample size of defensive metrics does apply though), and he made 16 errors after committing just 7 in 2013. As such, his 0.2 fWAR indicates he was only marginally more valuable than the average Triple-A replacement player.
The Rays would probably like to hold onto Escobar so that he could boost his value back up in 2015. But, his $5 million salary for next year is not insignificant to the Rays, and they are going to have to find a way to cut payroll somewhere. After his disappointing 2013 the Rays aren’t likely to get a huge return for him in a deal, but he still has enough value to net them a decent piece and ensure they do not have to pay the rest of his contract. Dealing him would be risky because if Escobar rebounds his contract looks like a good value, but if they hold onto him they run the risk that he can’t rebound and that his contract only looks worse. Their willingness to trade him might come down to if they believe Ben Zobrist or Nick Franklin can handle shortstop on an everyday basis.
Similar to Escobar, Loney followed up a great 2013 year with a step-back in 2014. His hitting was still decent, but his .290/.336/.380 line this year was a drop-off from his .299/.348/.430 line in 2013. That in-and-of itself isn’t enough to make Loney a salary dump candidate, but he also suffered from a drop-off in defense as well. Loney posted a below-average UZR/150 of -1.8 this year after posting a 7.2 mark in 2013 (small sample size red flag applies). Loney was still a solid contributor to the Rays in 2014, but his value isn’t as high as it was after the 2013 season.
Like Escobar, the Rays surely want to hold on to Loney for 2015 in hopes that he can regain his defensive prowess. But, Loney is scheduled to make $7 million next year, and he could be a way the Rays make a salary cut. There might be some value to be had in a Loney trade, but likely nothing too significant. Loney is already limited as a first baseman without much power, and his power numbers fell even lower this year. His defense made up for at least some of that, but all of a sudden he was nothing too special on defense this year. We could very well see the Rays deal Loney to another club for not a huge return other than getting his salary off the books.
The Rays could certainly lower salary by trading guys who will bring plenty of value in return in trades, such as Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, and more. But in doing so they will also be trading away solid contributors. Balfour, Escobar, and Loney all could very well be good pieces for the Rays’ 2015 team, but all of them are at least a little less desirable than they were prior to this year. If the Rays want to lower their payroll without giving up players that come with a bit less risk than this trio, then we could very well see their offseason dominated by salary dump trades.