It didn’t take long for the press and team management to file away the 2015 season and look ahead to 2016. In reviewing a disappointing 2015 season from the Tampa Bay Rays, Matt Silverman praised the “heavy lifting” that was done prior to the beginning of the year and how it will set the stage for 2016. Kevin Cash talked about the solid foundation that had been laid for the future of the team in 2015. This is all well and good, but they fail to talk about the important building blocks that were not added to the foundation in the form of left-handed power hitters.
We have already discussed in depth how the Rays’ issues scoring runs had much to do with their struggles against right-handed pitching. The Rays’ two best hitters for most of the season, Logan Forsythe and Evan Longoria, were both far better against left-handers, leaving the team without a single true middle-of-the-order threat against righties. The hope is that Longoria can build on his progress from this season and excel against pitchers of both sides again, but this isn’t entirely about his skills deteriorating–the fact that he had no protection in the lineup also played a factor.
John Jaso did a nice job out of the leadoff spot when healthy while Asdrubal Cabrera had a nice second half, but now both will be free agents, leaving the Rays lacking for lefty bats even more. Though re-signing Jaso could be feasible, that doesn’t help the middle of the order anyway. The Rays can expect some sort of rebound from James Loney, but no one can reasonably expect him to recover enough to be worthy of manning the cleanup spot.
How can the Rays, given their limited budget, add left-handed punch to their lineup? It won’t be from the farm system as left-handed power is also lacking there. Jake Bauers and the switch-hitting Casey Gillaspie are two players worth watching, but Bauers is more of a gap-to-gap hitter while Gillaspie is at least two to three years away. Talented free agents are way out of the team’s reach, with power hitters like Chris Davis of the Orioles commanding nine-figure contracts. That leaves the free agent scrapheap or an imaginative trade.
Given that choice, a trade makes sense and the Philadelphia Phillies might be a good trading partner. They are in a rebuilding mode and would be glad to make Ryan Howard and Domonic Brown available. Both have serious left-handed power but come with baggage. Howard will 36 when the season starts, is weak in the field, and has had some knee issues. On the positive side, he has power and there are reasons to believe that he would play better in Tampa Bay than he did in Philadelphia.
Howard slammed 23 home runs each of the last two years and could have pushed for more this season had he not been sidelined in September. Admittedly, his numbers beyond his home runs and RBIs leave something to be desired–his .226/.296/.408 line amounts to a 93 OPS+, making him 7% below a league-average hitter. On the other hand, the Rays would be able to move him to designated hitter, which could help his numbers to some extent, and then we have the more important measure of turning him into a platoon player.
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Howard’s stats could have been better in 2015, but much of the problem was that he was an everyday player. The Rays wish that they could sign or acquire a power hitter that could mash against pitchers of both sides, but they would be more than happy if Howard could come close to repeating his .256/.304/.499 line against right-handed pitchers from this season (compared to .130/.178/.240 versus lefties). We can debate how much playing DH would help Howard, but there should be less argument that platooning him to give him better matchups and more rest should help his overall numbers by a significant margin.
Brown, meanwhile, was ranked as high as the #4 prospect in baseball in 2011 and reached his upside for exactly one year when he hit to a .272/.324/.494 line (124 OPS+) with 27 doubles and 83 RBI in 2013. Since then, he hasn’t been nearly as good, managing just a .223/.285/.349 line (75 OPS+), but he is a 28 year old who retains upside and could use a change of scenery. His trade value is certainly low at this point, but if the cost is low, a team like the Rays would like to see what he can do.
Grady Sizemore managed a Brown-esque .250/.304/.354 line during his time with the Phillies, but even though he was five years older and considerably farther removed from success, hitting coach Derek Shelton managed to turn him around. The Rays would be hoping for something similar with Brown, and they will also be looking at one of the few positives from his 2015: his defense. Brown was considered an average defender by both DRS and UZR this season after generating negative ratings every other year of his career.
The Tampa Bay Rays would not be willing to give up much to take chances on Howard and Brown, and the Phillies would have to chip in a boatload of cash. Howard is owed $25 million in 2016 plus a $10 million buyout of his 2017 option and even the just-under $3 million that Brown will take home through arbitration is a bit pricey for the Rays’ tastes. The Phillies would need to be willing to eat at least $30 million of the $38 million that the two players are owed to even start trade talks, and the Rays would rather they cover $32 million or more.
If the Phillies are willing to do that, however, the Rays could be willing to trade a pair of pitchers to them in exchange for Howard and Brown. We aren’t talking about a big trade involving Nate Karns or Erasmo Ramirez, but a deal involving either Matt Andriese or Jacob Faria along with either Brandon Gomes or C.J. Riefenhauser could make sense. The Phillies save a little bit of money, clear playing time for younger players, and acquire a back-of-the-rotation-type starter and a reliever in exchange for giving up Howard and Brown.
The Rays would be giving up a pitcher lost in their starting depth and a forgettable relief arm to take fliers on the two lefty bats. Such a deal would help them balance their lineup without paying much of anything in the way of salaries and would be a risk worth taking. Howard and Brown have not played well in recent years, but by platooning Howard at DH and giving Brown a change of scenery, the Rays would be putting both in positions to succeed.
In the end, Matt Silverman may find a better trade out there, and it will be interesting to see what he could net for a pitcher like Karns or Ramirez. The Rays would much rather have a young slugger than a pair of reclamation projects like Howard and Brown. On the other hand, the Rays could easily trade Karns and then execute a deal like this if they believe that to be their best option. There aren’t many players with power potential that are available on the cheap, and since the Phillies have two of them, the Rays will be calling them at some point in the next few months.