Tampa Bay Rays Mailbag: The Cost of Retaining John Jaso
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Ryan asks: How much would it cost the Rays to bring back John Jaso as a free agent?
A while back, commenter Ryan asked about the necessary price tag to keep both Jaso and Asdrubal Cabrera beyond their current one-year contracts. We will address Jaso today before getting into Cabrera hopefully next week.
So far this season, Jaso has hit to a .284/.379/.456 line (131 OPS+) with 17 doubles, 4 homers, 20 RBI, and a 35-26 strikeout to walk ratio in 198 plate appearances. His wrist contusion (I still can’t believe that was the injury!) sidelined him into July after his first plate appearance and he has also been heavily platooned, making just 19 PA’s against left-handed pitchers. It is also reasonable to say given his injury issues that he should never catch again. On the other hand, he hits right-handed pitching like crazy and showcased his versatility by getting into 6 games in the outfield this year.
A reasonable floor for Jaso this offseason would be the one-year, $6 million deals signed by Luke Scott with the Rays after the 2011 season and Mike Morse with the Giants before 2014. Both had good track records of hitting but struggled mightily in their final years before free agency. Scott managed a 90 OPS+ in 236 plate appearances, ending his season in July following shoulder surgery, while Morse put up an 84 OPS+ in 337 PA’s, also missing time with a quad strain. Jaso doesn’t quite have their upside as he is a true platoon player, but he still has a few distinct advantages over them.
Firstly, teams won’t be able to ignore just how good Jaso has been in his walk year, even though the sample is relatively small. His injury was a complete fluke and it is easy to look at how he is hitting and say that he is primed to hit something like this moving forward now that he no longer needs to worry about catching. Beyond that, he is more athletic than Scott and Morse, making him a much better baserunner and giving him a chance to be average defensively at first base or in left field. At the very least, he wouldn’t be the train wreck that Scott and Morse were in the field.
Finally, Jaso’s plate discipline makes him a very safe player as long as he is healthy. He may not have a ton of power, but he will consistently give you good at-bats and put the ball in play while hitting the occasional homer and more than his fair share of doubles. If a team wants a high-OBP hitter at the top of their lineup and doesn’t care too much about speed, Jaso is a good of a fit as they will ever find. That is in sharp contrast to the streaky, free-swinging tendencies of a guy like Morse. Overall, Jaso has enough going for him to overshadow the fact that he is a platoon player and get more than Morse and Scott.
The next question is how high Jaso’s contract value could possibly go, and the three comps that come to mind are Billy Butler (3 years, $30 million), Michael Cuddyer (2 years, $20M), and Kendrys Morales (2 years, $17M). That being said, it seems difficult to believe that he can match any of them. Jaso may be the most athletic of the group, but all three of them could play every day while he simply can’t and Jaso’s 6 career games in the outfield don’t matter that much. It seems difficult to believe that he can match the amount of money that they received.
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That finally brings us to Jaso’s actual comps: fellow platoon players Seth Smith and David Murphy. Smith received two years, $13 million in his extension with the San Diego Padres while Murphy got two years and $12 million as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians. (Both players have since been traded). At the time that the contracts were signed, Smith and Murphy were both considered above-average corner outfield defenders, giving them edges over Jaso, but Jaso has better offensive numbers than both of them despite spending much of his career as a catcher. Jaso also comes with more injury concerns than them, but especially given salary inflation in baseball, it seems reasonable for him to receive a two-year deal worth between $12 million and $15 million this offseason.
In that range, the Tampa Bay Rays certainly have the ability to stay in the mix for Jaso. Contracts like that have been ill-fated in their history–see Pat Burrell and Grant Balfour–but Jaso’s plate discipline and athleticism limit the risk that comes with him and it isn’t as though the Rays will be able to find a better leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching within their budget. His injury history is concerning, but this year’s injury won’t repeat itself and the fact that he is no longer catcher increases the chances that he can stay on the field. The Rays could look to trade for a bat to replace Jaso, but unless they find a near-perfect match, re-signing him seems like their best bet.