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Could the Tampa Bay Rays Extend John Jaso?

By Robbie Knopf
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When the news broke that the Tampa Bay Rays had agreed to terms with all of their arbitration-eligible players, it was hardly surprising. Maybe a player or two would go to a hearing with the team, but it was inevitable that the Rays would agree to one-year contracts with everyone and get through the arbitration process one way or another.

There was one player, though, whose situation differed from the others: John Jaso. Jaso, acquired by the Rays in the Ben Zobrist trade, agreed to a one-year, $3.175 million deal in his third and final year of arbitration eligibility. However, did the Rays really trade for him just to let him leave as a free agent following the year? A multi-year deal with Jaso did not fall into place, but it is something the team will continue to explore moving forward.

The reasons not to extend John Jaso are pretty straightforward: his injury history and his accompanying move off the catcher position. The Rays thought that Jaso’s oblique strain in 2011 was bad enough, but the concussions that ended his last two seasons paint an even less optimistic picture. Jaso has averaged 48 games and 43 starts at catcher the last three seasons, and those totals will only decrease moving forward.

With the Rays this season, John Jaso will be a designated hitter primarily. That isn’t to say that he won’t catch–putting him behind the plate once every two to three weeks might provide the team with the right mix of keeping him healthy and maximizing his value. Even if Jaso is a DH, though, will that be enough to keep him on the field?

If the Rays sought to extend Jaso now, they could probably get a good deal. Ryan Hanigan was projected to make $2.3 million in arbitration last year before the Rays signed him to a three-year extension at $3.58 million per year plus at least an $800,000 buyout. With that in mind, a three-year extension (with 2014 as the first year) at say $4.5 million a year plus a buyout would be a reasonable offer to Jaso while still being a relatively team-friendly move.

Such a deal would give the Rays a talented player for years to come and provide Jaso with security in case further injury strikes. However, both sides have time to decide whether such a contract makes sense. Even if Jaso stays healthy in 2015–as both sides certainly hope he does–the specter of his recent DL stints certainly won’t disappear and he would still be looking for a deal with the same range.

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If the Rays hold off on extension talks with Jaso, it would likely cost them some money if they do agree to terms. On the other hand, it would also give them an opportunity to assess him further. Is Jaso going to be able to stay healthy? Will they be able to live with a full-time DH against right-handed pitching for the next several years? Before the Rays sign a long-term pact with Jaso, it is worthwhile for them to gather as much information as possible.

It is also worth nothing that the Rays’ recent extensions with veterans have not worked out as hoped. Yunel Escobar was a disaster in the first year of his new deal before the Rays traded him while David DeJesus‘ deal arguably looks worse. Joel Peralta‘s two-year contract with options also stopped being valuable to the team before the Rays dealt him to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

On the free agent side, meanwhile, James Loney looked fine last season, but the same can’t be said for Grant Balfour. He pitched better at the end of the year and the Rays are hoping for a resurgence from him in 2015, but they still wish they had the $7 million he is owed allotted elsewhere. There is a reason the Rays like signing younger players so much–even the best veterans decline, often faster than everyone expected.

If the Rays extend Jaso for two more years beyond 2014, they would have him from his age-31 season to his age-33 season. If they sign him for three years following the season, he would still be under contract when he turns 35 years of age in September of 2018.  He might still be producing in that time, but there is certainly no guarantee and it may not be worth the risk.

With that in mind, the Rays may have briefly discussed an extension with Jaso’s agents, but if they did, they likely shaded their offer to Jaso down by a solid margin from that three-year, $13.5 million extension we discussed above. There is a price where they would like to sign him, but at least at this point, that number is below his market value.

John Jaso may end up staying with the Tampa Bay Rays beyond 2015, but that is unlikely to be finalized anytime soon. The Rays want to be as confident as possible that he is worth keeping around, and to get there, they will continuously evaluate him for the entire 2015 season.

If Jaso can stay healthy this season and prove himself valuable, then the Rays will start negotiations to see if they can retain him for future years. That may come via an extension right before he hits free agency or they may re-sign him as a free agent like they did with Loney. Either way, it made sense for them to hold off on talks until the season concludes.

Next: An Idea to Even Out the Yoan Moncada Sweepstakes

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