Minor league signings are every front office’s dream. You sign players with a chance to make your big league roster, and all it costs you is a salary under $1 million that you only have to pay if they make your team. The best part, though, is when you find players with upside despite those team-friendly stipulations, such as the Tampa Bay Rays’ recent signings of Juan Francisco and Joey Butler.
The Tampa Bay Rays traded Sean Rodriguez this offseason, but Juan Francisco is a better version of him, at least given the Rays’ needs. In 2014 for the Toronto Blue Jays, the 27-year-old infielder hit to a .220/.291/.456 line (107 OPS+) with 16 doubles, 16 homers, and 43 RBI in 320 plate appearances. The Rays could certainly use his power.
Francisco’s low average and OBP show how much of an all-or-nothing player he is, but it isn’t too often that Rays have found a player who hit 16 homers the previous season that is available so cheaply. Of course, he also has further limitations: he does not hit left-handed pitching at all and is a terrible defender everywhere but first base.
There are reasons Francisco had to settle for so little, but the Rays may lined up to maximize his strengths while hiding his flaws. Well, at least that will be the case if the Rays make one more trade.
If the season began today, Francisco would not make the Rays. As we discussed yesterday, the Rays are currently lined up to have John Jaso as their primary DH against right-handed pitching, with David DeJesus in left field. James Loney will obviously be at first base as well, so Francisco would have little room for playing time.
The fact that Francisco does not hit lefties is annoying to the Rays because Jaso and DeJesus will sit against them, as will Kevin Kiermaier, Nick Franklin, and Loney on at least a part-time basis. With that in mind, the Rays need the 25th man on their roster to be a third right-handed bench player to join Brandon Guyer and Logan Forsythe.
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On the other hand, if the Rays traded DeJesus–say to call up Steven Souza or sign Colby Rasmus–then they would have a little more flexibility with their last spot and Francisco would be a good fit. He still wouldn’t have regular playing time against right-handed pitching, but he could DH when Jaso catches and occasionally spell Loney. His most important function would be power bat off the bench, and that is where he could really shine.
Joey Butler, meanwhile, could be a candidate to make the Rays’ roster if they keep DeJesus. Butler, 28, is a righty-hitting corner outfielder with solid power and plate discipline. He hit to a .278/.385/.456 line against left-handed pitching in the minors the last four seasons, with all but 13 of his games coming at Triple-A. He also appeared in 14 major leagues games.
The Rays could probably find a player with more big league experience than Joey Butler for their last bench job, but he is a good candidate to compete with Tim Beckham if the Rays decide to go that route. The Rays need to decide whether it’s more important to have a third shortstop or a fifth outfielder for that spot, and Butler would represent that latter.
Butler will likely begin the year at Triple-A Durham, but it is nice for the Rays to find a player at least capable of filling a big league role. We have seen the Rays resort to backup outfielders like Jason Bourgeois and Rich Thompson in the past, and Butler hits better than them.