This is a funny offseason for the Tampa Bay Rays because they do not have a single free agent. The trade-off for that, though, is that nine of their players are arbitration-eligible, tied for the ninth-highest total in baseball. The Rays will have some tough decisions ahead of them as they decide who to keep, who to trade, and who to non-tender. The first key deadline they will face is November 20th, when they have to finalize their 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 Draft, and then they will need to decide whether to tender contracts to their arbitration eligibles by December 2nd.
A critical piece of the Rays’ choices will have to do with what they expect each player to make in arbitration. Luckily, we have an idea about that now as MLB Trade Rumors has released Matt Swartz’s projected salaries for every arbitration-eligible player. Let’s go through Swartz’s projections for the arbitration-eligible Rays and use them to get a window into what the Rays will do with each.
Matt Joyce: $4.9 million
Projected to be the most costly of the Rays’ arbitration players is Joyce, and it’s hard to argue that he is not worth that money in a vacuum. While he has his limitations, he is still a quality hitter against left-handed pitching in a pitcher-friendly era.
From the Rays’ standpoint, however, they have a similar player in David DeJesus already under contact in addition to all the other outfielders they have. They also now have Nick Franklin, yet another player who may need to be platooned against lefties. Can the Rays really justify paying Joyce more than three times as much as what Wil Myers, Kevin Kiermaier, and Brandon Guyer will make combined? Unless the trade-market for Joyce is non-existent, it seems likely that he will be dealt.
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Alex Cobb: $4.5 million
It is a pity that the Tampa Bay Rays have not extended Cobb already, but he is an excellent pitcher for them at a more-than-affordable price. Cobb is expected to surpass David Price‘s $4.35 million from his first go-around in arbitration, but the Rays are lucky than unlike Price, Cobb is not a Super Two. When the Rays sent Cobb to the minors to begin 2012, they did so not to delay his service time, but instead because they did not consider him one of their five best starters at the time. Nevertheless, not calling him until mid-May of that year has saved them a lot of money.
Jeremy Hellickson: $3.9 million
We live in a baseball world where Roberto Hernandez received $4.5 million from the Philadelphia Phillies last offseason despite not having posted an ERA under 4.80 since 2010. With that in mind, Hellickson would certainly have a chance at his projected salary if he was a free agent and might even get more.
For a Rays team with pitching depth, though, it makes no sense to pay Hellickson $3.9 million, more than everyone else in their rotation but Cobb. Hellickson is talented enough to be tendered a contract, but trading him seems inevitable, whether this offseason or when Matt Moore is set to return from Tommy John Surgery.
Jake McGee: $3.8 million
The Rays would have rather not seen McGee’s salary jump by over $2 million in his second turn through arbitration, but his excellent season as their closer warrants the payday. Plus, with Grant Balfour making $7 million this year, $3.8 looks like a major bargain for McGee.
Desmond Jennings: $3.2 million
The first thing to say about Jennings is that it would be easier to stomach paying him over $3 million if Joyce was traded. No matter what happens with Joyce, though, Jennings is every bit worth that salary.
Jennings has a bad reputation because he has not reached his potential, never reaching 15 home runs in a season and actually seeing his stolen bases go down each of the last two years. He is also below-average against right-handed pitching, and suddenly the Rays have a lefty hitting centerfielder in Kiermaier who may start taking some starts from him against righties. When the Rays installed Jennings as their centerfielder, this is not what they had in mind.
Nevertheless, Jennings is still at least a league-average centerfielder when he recognize that his flaws are exaggerated, his hitting against lefties is excellent, and his defense in centerfield remains strong. Are we really sure that Kiermaier can hit enough to be any better than Jennings overall? It would take a significant trade offer for the Rays to deal Jennings.
Drew Smyly: $3.0 million
Smyly isn’t super cheap anymore, but he was a solid pitcher for three years with the Detroit Tigers and looked dominant at the end of the season with the Rays. He will certainly be worth the money, and the Rays are hoping that $3 million will look like a steal for him by the end of the year.
Sean Rodriguez: $2.0 million
Rodriguez had a power surge in 2014, drilling 12 home runs to rank second on the team, but he was still a below league-average hitter (97 OPS+). That is pretty remarkable. In any event, the Rays would still have Logan Forsythe and Brandon Guyer if he left, and righty-hitting bench bats are not hard to find. The Rays have no need to trade Rodriguez, but they will certainly listen to offers.
Cesar Ramos: $1.3 million
Ramos is not going to get much money, but the Rays could easily find a pitcher making the league minimum to replace him. At the same time, $1.3 million is cheap enough that a team needing starting and relief depth might claim him if he is designated for assignment, so the Rays are in no rush to get rid of him. If the Rays need an extra 40-man roster spot, he could go, but there is no reason to non-tender him and he may even last until the end of spring training.
Logan Forsythe: $1.2 million
Forsythe played worse than Rodriguez, but the good news was that he rebounded against left-handed pitching, managing a .241/.297/.411 line despite a rough start. The presence of Nick Franklin and the breakthrough of Brandon Guyer could mean that Forsythe will get fewer opportunities to face righties, but that could be the best solution for everyone involved. Tim Beckham could be a cheaper option in a similar role, but he would need to turn himself around entirely to earn such a chance.
Of the nine arbitration-eligible Rays, it seems likely that five will still be with the team in June of this year while four will be playing elsewhere. There will not be too much drama for the Rays around the non-tender deadline, but it will be fascinating to see what trades Matt Silverman will make in his first offseason as the Rays’ president of baseball operations.