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Tampa Bay Rays Job Opening: Shortstop

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Among the solid moves that Matt Silverman made during the run up to the 2015 season was signing Asdrubal Cabrera. It was thought that Cabrera might turn out to be an offense-minded second baseman, but instead he turned into a top-notch shortstop with both offensive and defensive skills. However, the Tampa Bay Rays were only able to sign Cabrera because he was willing to take a one-year deal to rebuild his value, and his successful season has put him in a position to sign a multi-year deal for eight figures. That’s out of the Rays’ league, so the team is once again looking for a shortstop for 2016.

Given their salary constraints, the Rays will probably look first at their own 40-man roster and that makes Tim Beckham the number one candidate for the job. We all know Beckham’s story–he struggled after being the number one overall draft choice in 2008 but found a place on the 25-man roster as a utility infielder in 2015. He played 28 games at shortstop, and while he made some rookie mistakes, he certainly didn’t embarrass himself. In fact, he only made 2 errors in 77 fielding chances, not making flashy plays but doing a solid enough job on the whole.

On the offensive side, Beckham was even stronger, going to the plate 223 times and delivering 9 home runs and 37 RBI with a .429 slugging percentage. He certainly wasn’t an on-base machine with just a .274 OBP, but if you translate his power numbers over a full season, it’s 25 home runs and over 100 RBI. It would be quite surprising if that actually happened, and it’s worth noting that Beckham put up his numbers while playing primarily against lefty pitching. Even so, his .676 OPS against righties wasn’t so bad (86 sOPS+) and he could improve in more regular playing time.

The other two shortstops on the 40-man roster are Nick Franklin and Jake Elmore. Franklin has an outside chance at the shortstop job, but he will have to pick up both his offensive and defense games. He still has some upside, but after his disastrous performance in the big leagues the last two years, he will be hoping just to make the team in a utility role. Elmore, meanwhile, is strictly a utility man and seems primed to be designated for assignment in the coming weeks.

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The Rays are loaded with shortstops at the minor league level, with six currently residing on their top 30-prospect list. Daniel Robertson and Willy Adames are the top two, but we certainly aren’t talking about either of them starting next season in the majors. Due to injuries, Robertson played only 78 games at Double-A (although he is making up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League) while Adames played the season at High-A. Robertson will play at Triple-A Durham next year and has a good chance for a call-up at some point, but we will have to see how much more development time he needs. Adames, meanwhile, will take Robertson’s place in Montgomery.

Outside of the organization, free agency offers very little. Cabrera will want an expensive multi-year dear. Ian Desmond will want the same and more. Even though the Washington Nationals soured on him, he is still a power-hitting shortstop who has hit 108 home runs and plated 420 runs over six complete seasons and he’s only 30 years of age. Only in the Rays’ dreams would he settle for a Cabrera-esque one-year deal.

Jimmy Rollins is also a free agent, but he is in the December of his career as a 36 year old having played 16 seasons. Unless Rollins is willing to take a low-cost contract and compete for a job, the fit doesn’t appear to be very good. Others like Mike Aviles, Stephen Drew, and Cliff Pennington aren’t exciting either, although at least Drew has some power. A couple of players will surely be signed to minor league deals and invited to spring training.

Trades are always out there, but I suspect the Rays are looking for a short-term bridge to Robertson or Adames. We’ll know more about the trade market as the offseason progresses, but no one jumps off the page as an inexpensive player that is better than Beckham. Maybe the Rays could buy low on a guy like Jordy Mercer if the Pirates want to clear their infield logjam. A deal might also be worked out with a team that wants to dump an aging veteran and eat most of his contract, but there aren’t many shortstops that fit that description.

All-in-all, this is not an ideal situation for the Rays if they want to compete in the AL East next year. At the moment, it looks like Beckham or a good-field, no-hit journeyman and given the Rays’ overall lack of offense, the latter is not an inviting choice. I happen to like what I saw in Beckham last year. He has good power and he looked OK in the field, and that may be enough to get him a more extended look. If that doesn’t work out, the Rays can hope for Franklin to find himself or for Robertson to make quick work of Triple-A.

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