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RCG Mailbag: Should Rays Target Josh Harrison, Nori Aoki?

By Robbie Knopf
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We haven’t done this in a while, but welcome to another addition of the Rays Colored Glasses Mailbag. In this addition, we’ll be discussing two players that could possibly interest the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason. To submit a question, you can email a question to rayscoloredglasses@gmail.com or comment on any of our posts here on the site.

Ryan and Phattitudes ask: Could Josh Harrison and Nori Aoki be fits for the Rays?

We are well aware of the fact that the Rays have work to do offensively this offseason. Their 612 runs scored were the lowest in franchise history, and they have to find some way to turn themselves around. With that in mind, they have to be looking at players like Harrison on the trade market and others like Aoki among the available free agents.

Harrison, 26, was an All-Star in July and never stopped hitting on his way to a breakout year for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Overall in 2014, he hit to a .315/.347/.490 line with 38 doubles, 7 triples, 13 home runs, and 18 stolen bases, and he actually brings even more to the table than that. Harrison played third base, second base, shortstop and both corner outfield positions over the course of the season, showing the type of versatility the Rays love. He is considered a strong defender at third base and a solid one at second while being around passable everywhere else.

One of the Rays’ issues right now is that they don’t have too many obvious spots to upgrade their team even though their lineup played so poorly this season. Someone like Harrison would easily solve that problem because the Rays would be moving him around quite a bit. Ben Zobrist will be a free agent after 2015 while Harrison is under team control for three more years, so he seems like a nice fit to step into Zobrist’s super-utility role. Unfortunately, though, not everything about Josh Harrison would make it a good thing for the Rays to acquire him.

The first big thing to note is that Harrison’s value is at an all-time high. He had just an 80 OPS+ in 575 big league plate appearances entering this season, and he is not as good as he played this year. Sometimes players break out, but there is reason to believe that Harrison will regress significantly. We made the comparison to Zobrist above, but while Zobrist has excellent plate discipline, Harrison struck out 81 times against just 22 walks this season. He does do a solid job making contact, but his inability to draw walks will limit his on-base percentage and could make it difficult for him to tap into his power moving forward.

Josh Harrison is the type of player the Rays like, but they certainly won’t go crazy trying to acquire him. The combination of his inflated trade value and the near-certainty that he will regress will prevent the Rays from making too strong of a bid. The best offer the Rays would make for a player like Harrison would be say Enny Romero and a lower-level prospect, but there’s no guarantee that they would be willing to give up even that.

The Rays have this funny thing going on in their outfield where it isn’t all that great, yet they seemed prime to trade from it. If they do make a trade, Nori Aoki could make sure that they don’t lose out anything because of it. This season for the AL-champion Kansas City Royals, Aoki hit to a .285/.349/.360 line with 17 stolen bases. He didn’t strike out at all–just 49 times in 549 plate appearances–while drawing a solid 43 walks. In addition, in sharp contrast to the Rays’ current outfielders, Aoki is capable of playing against pitchers from both sides, although he is better against left-handed pitching. Should the Rays sign Aoki to fortify the top of their lineup?

The good news regarding Aoki is that he should not cost all that much this offseason. After he made just $4.95 million combined the last three years, say a two-year deal worth $10 million just might be enough to sign him. It certainly would not be surprising to see the Rays make him an offer like that, especially if they can free up some money by trading Matt Joyce.

The negatives regarding Aoki, though, are that he has almost no power and is an iffy defender. He does some things well, but not enough to be more than an average player at best. Currently, the Rays have Wil Myers, Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Guyer, and David DeJesus lined up to be in their outfield assuming Joyce is traded. Aoki would help the top of the lineup, but is he really an upgrade over what the Rays already have?

One reason to bring in Aoki is that he has been a relatively consistent player while players like Myers and Kiermaier have questions for next season. Aoki wouldn’t be a franchise-changing guy, but there’s a value in getting a relatively safe bet and it’s nice that he can play against both righties and lefties. At the end of the day, though, Aoki is unlikely to join the Rays unless the price really stays very low. I would be surprised if they offered him more than say two years and $6 or $7 million.

Have any questions for our RCG staff? Comment on our site and we would be glad to answer them.

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