|TAMPA BAY RAYS|
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Signed RHP Nathan Eovaldi to a one-year, $2 million contract. [2/12]
Signed C-R Derek Norris to a one-year, $1.2 million contract. [3/26]
If you’re a fan of one of 28 major-league teams, consider yourself lucky. Your favorite franchise can go out in the offseason and sign or trade for a player in the hopes that they will play as well as they did the previous season; in other words, a franchise can pay for past performance. But if you’re a supporter of the Rays—or the Athletics, but that’s a topic for another day—all you can hope for is just that: hope.
The Rays’ front office isn’t equipped for that kind of acquisition, which is the price for playing in the smallest of small markets and with the tightest of payrolls. No, you can’t be sure the Rays had a good season until after their new major-league acquisitions have improved over their previous-year numbers. And that’s what the following three players all have in common.
The Waiting Game
Don’t be fooled by Eovaldi’s one-year deal, as he won’t pitch this season as he recovers from elbow surgery. The Rays are paying him to rehab and recover from his torn UCL and flexor tendons, working toward a 2018 return. For that season, the Rays hold a $2 million team option and the ability to see what kind of recovery he has from his year off. Of course, Eovaldi has always been something of a mystery, as his top-shelf velocity has never come with the strikeout numbers one might suspect. (This is your opportunity to remember Brad Penny, for comparison’s sake.)
He’s had his fresh starts and more than his share of “maybe he’s figured it out” moments, but now there are rumblings that he’ll perhaps head to the bullpen when he returns. Well, that’s all well and good for an enticing starter without good secondary pitches, but DRA seems to think that Eovaldi’s been rather effective, even without big strikeout numbers and deceptively high ERAs. During the past three years, WARP pegs him as worth about two wins per season, which is just fine for a mid-rotation starter, and the last two years he earned that in just 27 and 21 starts, respectively.
If he can’t stay healthy, there’s the chance that Eovaldi will become another bullpen piece on a team looking to swap relievers for future talent, but if he comes back and looks anything like his 2016 version, he’ll be another inexpensive, effective starting pitcher on a team that always seems to find more of those guys. Just you wait and see.
The Falling Star
Norris lived the baseball equivalent of the naked-at-school dream in 2016, and his punishment has been to suffer the indignity of being cut by the Nationals in favor of Jose Lobaton. Where he was once a bat-first, glove-last All-Star catcher with plus on-base skills, moving to the Padres in 2015 saw his bat droop as his glove rose; however, nothing could have prepared us for a disastrous age-27 season.
Despite remaining a good pitch framer, the bearded backstop only put balls in play where there was a glove waiting for them, and ended the season as one of the worst offensive players in baseball. His strikeouts skyrocketed, his True Average crashed to earth, and he lost a job on the Padres. That’s embarrassing. Fortunately, there’s always hope, and there doesn’t seem to be a fundamental health issue that might prevent Norris from one day recovering some of his lost offensive mojo.
Since he was so bad over a full season last year it’s easy to give up on him, but when the other options are Luke Maile and Curt Casali, and the price tag comes cheap, the Rays are probably smart to roll the dice and see if he can shine again in April and May.
Then there’s Bourjos, the least important even among this series of moves. There’s an argument that this is acquisition makes the Rays’ already-impressive collection of outfield defenders even better, but allow me to provide a simple dissent. Yes, Statcast Catch Probability reflects well on Bourjos, but his other defensive numbers paint the picture of an average-ish defender.
Our FRAA metric has him as a markedly sub-standard defender over the past two seasons (-8.3 FRAA), which would be one thing in center field, but he spent almost all of 2016 in right field. DRS and UZR peg him as something closer to an average defender, and all of these metrics are small samples, but so is Catch Probability, and the eye test isn’t doing Bourjos many favors anymore.
If PBj doesn’t have those elite defensive skills, it’s probably not all that wise to bet on him being productive—his bat doesn’t sing. Especially as a corner outfielder, he’s just not a good enough hitter to see regular work. His approach backslid dramatically in Philadelphia—17 walks in 383 plate appearances—and he has precious little power to back that up. He’s a fifth outfielder—a fine short-term replacement for Colby Rasmus—but even his upside isn’t particularly exciting these days. What we think we see may not be what we get.
Do these low-cost moves for the Rays make sense? Absolutely! If any of these three players improve over 2016, they could provide solid on-field value, especially in areas where the Rays need help. But before we praise this team too much if any of these bargain acquisitions pay off, remember this: these are the only moves they can make.