The Tampa Bay Rays filled their need for a designated hitter on Monday afternoon, agreeing in principle to a two-year, $16-million contract with free-agent slugger Pat Burrell.
Considering the price, it seems, this is another steal for Andrew Friedman and the baseball operations staff down in St. Petersburg. Burrell, who hit .250/.367/.507 with 33 home runs and a 125 OPS+ in 536 at-bats with the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, picked a bad time to come on the market. The surplus of hitters with his skill set—power, on-base skills, poor defense—and the current state of the economy drove down his price tag, making him a bargain for the cost-conscious Rays.
It was clear that the market was working in the Rays’ favor all along, and it is not a surprise that the club landed one of their targets out of a plethora of impact hitters available, including Milton Bradley and Jason Giambi, among others. With Bradley reportedly close to signing with the Chicago Cubs, the Rays turned their attention to Burrell and Giambi.
Just like that, the bat that they have been looking for has fallen to them—a late Christmas gift.
Burrell, 32, is a strong offensive performer, with the ability to post high walk rates and hit for power. He has been a model of consistency since 2005 as well, having posted OPS+ totals in the 122-128 range during that time span. The former University of Miami star has also averaged 31 home runs over 162 games throughout his nine-year career. While his low batting average and high strikeout totals turn some off, he is a real solid offensive player.
Burrell has one major flaw. He has graded out among the least effective defensive left fielders in the majors since 2006. Clearly, this takes away from his overall value, especially as front offices around the league continue to place more emphasis on the importance of strong defense. Coming to Tampa Bay, however, he can put his glove on the disabled list, moving into a full-time designated hitter role; he will be used sparingly in the outfield. Tampa Bay relied on a DH combo of Eric Hinske (another under-the-radar signing for Friedman) and Cliff Floyd in ’08, a decent enough pair that exceeded expectations. Burrell clearly represents an upgrade, though, and was not all that much more expensive than Floyd, who is contemplating retirement and is unlikely to return.
According to FanGraphs.com, Burrell is projected to provide the Rays with two wins above a replacement-level hitter; this accounts for his position switch and lack of defensive contributions. Either way, the signing represents a nice pick-up, especially considering the price. He is a candidate to decline, but, considering the short length, there is not a lot of downside risk on the Rays’ end.
Equally encouraging, adding Burrell does not cost Tampa Bay any draft picks. The Phillies, who seemingly overpaid (especially given this contract) for Raul Ibanez, declined to offer him arbitration. As a Type A free-agent, he would have netted two early-round picks.
While the American League East has gotten stronger, Tampa Bay has actually done the same. For a team that won 97 games in such a competitive division, that is saying a lot.
With the addition of Burrell, the Rays add an impact right-handed bat to the middle of a lineup that should be much improved in 2008. For all of the success, the Rays’ offense was fairly average, relative to the rest of the A.L. Friedman built his team with a backbone of pitching and defense, and his American League Championship roster was largely the result of a unit that excelled at run prevention. The offense, in fact, actually scored fewer runs than it did in 2007, when the franchise finished in dead last in the division.
Several of the Rays’ star position players had down performances in which they can improve upon. Which is uncommon among fluky, one-year wonders.
From left fielder Carl Crawford to Carlos Pena, who picked up it up down the stretch but struggled in the first half, a lot of guys did not live up to pre-season expectations.
Going forward, the lineup should score more runs.
Crawford can only improve upon his poor on-base percentage and OPS. B.J. Upton, who nearly hit more home runs in the playoffs than he did during the regular season, is fully healthy. With an improved shoulder, Upton should hit for a lot more power, in addition to offering his usual excellent on-base skills and speed to the base paths.
Plus, Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria has the chance to emerge as an M.V.P. candidate. Longoria actually missed a lot of time with injury, and the more at-bats he receives, the better.
Only one regular is a candidate for a regression, catcher Dioner Navarro, who made his first All-Star appearance after putting together an excellent first half.
In addition, Friedman fleeced the Detroit Tigers by acquiring Matt Joyce in exchange for Edwin Jackson at the Winter Meetings. Joyce, who still has minor league options and could be sent to the minors for more seasoning, offers an offensive upgrade over Gabe Gross in right field. The Florida Southern product is under team control for six years, at an affordable price, meaning that he will play a major role in the long-term even if he does not break camp with the club at the end of spring training. Gross, whose primarily value comes from his outfield defense, is still in the mix, as well as speedster Fernando Perez.
Often times, general managers, in all sports, get complacent when their team achieves on-field success and reaches the playoffs. Many feel that if a championship-caliber team returns, they are poised for glory again.
Not Friedman. He did not sit back on his laurels, using an outside-the-box approach to seemingly improve his roster. In a division with the sport’s two financial superpowers, that mindset is essential.
Tampa Bay will again have an excellent team defense—which ranked first in the major in team defense efficiency and UZR—which will consist of one of the fastest outfields in baseball, a strong up-the-middle unit and two capable defenders on the corners in Longoria and Pena, who won a Gold Glove at first base.
There are concerns about the durability of the starting rotation since several pitchers reached career highs in innings pitched and were extended into the postseason. The Rays’ young starting rotation, though, has a chance to get better as well.
Left-handed phenom David Price, who showed his stuff to the world in the postseason, is a leading candidate for A.L. Rookie of the Year. Price was dominant in his first professional campaign, rising from the Florida State League to the majors without any hiccups. The Vanderbilt product will be monitored closely—limited to around 180.0 innings. Regardless, he clearly represents an upgrade over Jackson, who won 14 games but produced concerning peripheral statistics. The Rays simply sold high on him for the wins total, improving two areas (right field, rotation) with one move.
If any of their starters should get injured or falter, though, the organization has excellent pitching depth in its minor league system. Wade Davis, Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann and even, perhaps in the second half, Jeremy Hellickson give the front office some options.
The one area of concern is the bullpen. Guys like Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell were lights out, as Friedman built one of the majors’ strongest relief corps on the cheap. There is a chance for a slight regression, but the addition of Joe Nelson was a nice move. Plus, there are several other internal candidates who could emerge like Balfour and Howell did, allowing Tampa Bay to have a capable relief unit even if Troy Percival does not add any real value.
Now, with the addition of Pat the Bat, the Rays have a more potent offense as well.
The division will not make things easy. The New York Yankees have spent half a billion on three players, adding two of best free agents in recent memory in CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira.
The Boston Red Sox, despite missing out on Teixeira, return a potent offense and exciting pitching staff.
But any baseball fan who counts out the Rays, or thinks that the East will come down to a two-team race, is simply not paying attention.
Phillies: The Phillies have received a lot of criticism over their decision to give Ibanez so much money. Justifiably so, it seems, given all that is known now. The Phils would have been better off letting the market come to them. With the glut of players with similar skill sets, Ruben Amaro Jr., in his first real major move, gave $30-plus million to a 36-year-old outfielder who has graded out as among the least effective defensive left fielders in all of baseball. He is also likely to decline, given the fact that he will be near 40 when the contract expires.
Considering all of the factors (especially not offering Burrell arbitration in a low-risk, one-year situation potentially had he accepted), the move looks even more foolish in hindsight. Philadelphia could have had a better overall player for cheaper, at only two years. Friedman is not resting on his laurels. Are the Phillies?
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com. To listen to Tyler discuss the Burrell signing in the latest edition of the Rays Digest podcast, click here.