The Tampa Bay Rays have acquired their bat. It wasn’t the high-profile acquisition of a player like Justin Upton for which some people were clamoring, but fans should appreciate the fact that the Rays were willing to add to their payroll to improve their current team. They claimed Daniel Nava off waivers from the Boston Red Sox, taking on the approximately $617,000 that he is owed. Though Nava comes with risk, he didn’t cost the Rays any prospects and could emerge as a productive player for them in both 2015 and future years.
The Rays acquired David DeJesus in an August trade in 2013, and now they are replacing him–along with the injured Steven Souza Jr.–with another August transaction. Nava fits the same basic description as DeJesus as a platoon outfielder with a track record against right-handed pitching, but he comes with additional advantages as well as added risks.
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On the positive side, Nava was considered the third-best defensive right fielder in baseball in 2014 behind only Jason Heyward and Kevin Kiermaier. He had drawn poor defensive reviews in the past, but he has put in extensive work on his defense over the years and certainly appears to be average or better in both right and left field at this point. Nava also has experience at first base, where he has also shown improvement in a small sample, although he won’t play there often given that both James Loney and him are better against right-handed pitching.
Nava is a switch-hitter, but his splits are dramatic–he has a .285/.377/.415 line against righty pitchers as a left-handed batter and just a .207/.287/.293 line against left-handers as a righty batter. However, the Rays won’t quibble too much if he can be productive against righties, especially because he would be doing so at a bargain rate. Nava makes only $1.85 million this year and despite his age (32), he can be controlled for both 2016 and 2017 through the arbitration process.
Now we need to talk about the reasons for concern. Nava didn’t hit at all with the Red Sox this year, managing a Nick Franklin-esque .152/.260/.182 line in 78 plate appearances, and he also hit the DL with a strained left thumb and found himself optioned to Triple-A at different points in the season. He did look decent in his Triple-A time, hitting to a .250/.357/.361 line in 42 plate appearances and hitting a home run against the Rays’ top affiliate, the Durham Bulls.
The Rays are taking a bit of a gamble that Nava can rebound, but they owe him only a few hundreds of thousands of dollars and they needed a more established outfield option anyway. Joey Butler has been struggling the most among the Rays’ outfielders, but given that Nava doesn’t hit lefties, it may make sense for the Rays to send Grady Sizemore or Richie Shaffer (if they don’t intend on playing him every day) to Durham instead. (We also should mention Mikie Mahtook as a demotion candidate.) In any event, Nava has the ability to be just as good as David DeJesus was earlier in the season and just maybe better, but he needs to prove that he can get past whatever derailed his season to the point that he ended up on waivers.