Examining the Rays in Arbitration

Following an unremarkable 2015 season — +3 wins from 2014, but my yearly expectations are lofty — the Tampa Bay Rays boast one of Major League Baseball’s largest arbitration classes. Based on projections done by MLB Trade Rumors, the Rays would be on the hook for roughly $29 million — nearly 40% of their 2015 payroll — for their 11 arbitration-eligible players alone if all were tendered contracts during the off-season.

The lengthy list of players slated to earn a raise through the arbitration process goes as follows:

(Service time and expected earnings in parenthesis; salary figures are based on projections)

Of this group, about four of them — Rivera, Arencibia, Nava, Gomes — are reasonable non-tender candidates. However, exasperating personnel decisions will extend much further than the potential non-tenders for Matt Silverman this off-season.

First and foremost is the most expensive case, sterling southpaw Jake McGee. After an exceptional 2014 season, McGee lost his grip on ninth inning duties due only to arthroscopic elbow surgery that kept him out until mid-May. Incumbent closer Brad Boxberger initially softened the blow of McGee’s loss with consistently superb pitching, but his All-Star representation coincided with a hideous tailspin that inflated his once terrific run prevention numbers tremendously.

Kevin Cash stuck with Boxberger in the ninth, and McGee was left jockeying for innings in a different role. McGee displayed his typical dominance when he was healthy — 37.1 IP, 2.41 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 6.00 K/BB ratio — but his season ended in disappointing fashion when he ended up back on the shelf after knee surgery. The 29-year-old’s price tag has soared since his arbitration eligibility kicked in, partly due to his steady accumulation of saves — a relatively meaningless statistic — since 2014.

As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this week, the Rays are already receiving plenty of interest in both McGee and Boxberger, with McGee being the more available of the two, considering his proximity to free agency — following the 2017 season — and the fact that Boxberger is still pre-arb.

The back-end of the Rays bullpen is anything but stable as it stands today, but this might be the right time to move McGee. The emergence of the ultra-talented — and inexpensive! — Alex Colome last season should influence the way next year’s bullpen is structured. The Rays now have the ability to do what they do best: deal away an established, pricey veteran and seamlessly replace him with a younger, cheaper alternative who should offer similar production.

The next relevant case, that of Logan Forysthe, presents an intriguing dynamic for the Rays. The versatile infielder enjoyed a sensational 2015 season in an unexpectedly crucial role, accumulating 4.4 wins above replacement (FanGraphs) to go with an .804 OPS and 126 wRC+. He was remarkably better than at any point previously in his relatively young career, and his favorable contractual state puts him in line for a healthy raise in 2016.

But how sustainable is his success? While his encouraging power surge and overall increase in run production can be attributed in part to the regular at bats he received due to Ben Zobrist‘s departure and Nick Franklin‘s early season injury, Forsythe is bound for some extent of inevitable regression towards the mean.

That’s not to say that the falloff will be dramatic; I firmly believe that Forysthe turned a corner in his career this past season and will prove valuable in the coming years, but it would be irrational to expect a repeat performance in 2016. Logan Forsythe, the commodity, will likely never be as valuable on the market as he is at this moment. That being said, I don’t believe a trade is imminent; the Rays are somewhat thin in the middle infield, especially at Forysthe’s natural position of second base, but my intuition leads me to suspect that Silverman would pull the trigger if given the opportunity.

With McGee and Forsythe’s combined salaries off the books in my hypothetical baseball universe, my attention turns next to the outfield. The Rays possess an excess of controllable outfield depth, starting with Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier (pre-arb), Steven Souza (pre-arb), and Mikie Mahtook (pre-arb, sensing a trend?). Brandon Guyer will obviously be tendered and kept, and I’m an advocate of Daniel Nava’s; with regular playing time, his production level would surpass his estimated cost.

The odd man out in this equation is Desmond Jennings. Jennings’ tenure in Tampa is growing increasingly stale. The Carl Crawford successor in Tampa Bay’s outfield has yet to capitulate the type of productivity that was initially expected, and it’s clearly time for a change. The challenge would be to find a trade partner. Unlike McGee and Forsythe, Jennings’ value isn’t elevated — in fact it might be the opposite — but the fact that he’s on the right side of 30, an exceptional athlete, and still very affordable strengthens the chances that the Rays could net a decent return in a potential deal.

Lastly, it appears that arbitration will be a large factor in deciding Tampa Bay’s catching dilemma. Assuming that Curt Casali takes on an expanded role and handles the majority of the starts behind the dish next season, the Rays will likely be deciding between Rene Rivera and J.P. Arencibia to fill the backup role.

This is the typical defense vs. offense discussion. Rivera did next to nothing offensively in 2015 — .489 OPS, 33 wRC+ — but his proficiency behind the plate jolts his worth to a team that values defense more than most. Arencibia, on the other hand, showed off his impressive power in his brief stint with the 2015 Rays, but he undoubtedly is not on Rivera’s level defensively. I surmise that, given the two’s comparable projected earnings, the Rays will remain conscious of what’s best for their greatest strength, starting pitching, and tender Rivera.

Ah, yes, that was exhausting. The laborious process of arbitration lends itself favorably to a sophisticated front office like Tampa Bay’s, but there is much work to be done. The blueprint that I’ve just outlined would save the organization approximately $12.5 million, a luxury that could go a long way in helping the Rays fill their remaining needs.

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