One might say that the Tampa Bay Rays have already had a busy off-season. You may have heard that they've dealt the franchise's best pitcher (James Shields) for a guy who might, one day, become a franchise outfielder (Wil Myers). The team has waved goodbye to B.J. Upton, and is now saying hello to Yunel Escobar and James Loney. And all these moves have been designed to keep the team competitive in 2013, while helping increase the foundation for future seasons.
Like I've done previously with the Miami Marlins, I'm posting below a few guys who I think might be good free agent pickups for the Rays. I'm not sure what the budget situation is in Tampa, especially following the acquisition of Roberto Hernandez, but each of these players should fit comfortably inside the money saved through the James Shields deal.
Jason Frasor (estimated contract: 2 years, $7 million)
Frasor is a 35-year-old reliever coming off a down season but, I've gotta be honest, I really have no idea if the contract I've estimated above is anywhere near accurate. It's tough to predict just how much money teams are willing to commit to relief pitchers. I mean, come on, Brandon League got over $22 million and three years this offseason. But if this is something Frasor could accept, then the Rays should bite the bullet and sign him ... and a one-year deal would be even better, probably.
Nevertheless, the Rays can always use another sharp arm in the bullpen, and Frasor fits the profile. A strikeout-happy reliever, Frasor had a tough time last season. But over at The Hardball Times, Glenn DuPaul predicted several free agent relievers who could bounce back next year, and Jason Frasor was one of them. You see, Frasor still strikes out a host of hitters, especially right-handed ones, and a poor 2012 ERA might have come from unusual variance in HR% and BABIP.
Over his career, Frasor has been very solid, and spent many years in a not-so-friendly pitching environment in Toronto. Moving to a much friendlier park (for pitchers at least) in Tampa would probably lead to an improvement over Frasor's already solid career numbers. He's not going to blow the doors off the place, but if he gets close to his career 3.77 ERA, 3.80 FIP, and 22.4% strikeout rate, the Rays would be lucky to have him.
Lance Berkman (estimated contract: 1 year, $6 million)
The Rays right now have a major offensive hole at the LF/DH/1B positions, and Lance Berkman is the perfect guy to try to fill it. Berkman is an all-world hitter when he's healthy, and could probably play first base without embarassing himself. But the spot for Lance is at DH, especially on a Rays team that could use all the offense it can muster. It's a gamble to think that Berk might be healthy, or even be able to spot up 400-500 plate appearances, but if he does make it onto the field, there's every indication that he'll hit the cork out of the baseball.
What the Rays (and everyone else) should not expect, is a return to 2011 form for the Big Puma. Berkman's 2011 was the best offensive season of his already-storied career. He racked up a 163 wRC+ -- that's 63% better than league average! No, I think the Rays should expect something a bit closer to 2010, the season that Berk spent between the Astros and the Yankees. That year, Berkman had his worst season, with only 14 HR and a .248/.368/.413 triple slash line. That was good for a 114 wRC+, not exactly the same deal. But if Berkman can stay healthy for much of a whole season, well, that's probably a floor for his offensive production.
Again, I'm really just spitballing here on the contract amount, but inking the former Astros / Yankees / Cardinals slugger to a one-year deal would be a coup for the Rays. This is a team that could use a player with Lance's combination of power and on-base ability. As a DH (and occasional replacement for Loney at 1B), Berkman would get to do what he does best: hit.
Grady Sizemore (estimated contract: 1 year, $1 million)
If Lance Berkman is an injury risk, Grady Sizemore is an extra-big injury risk. Sizemore makes Berkman look like Cal Ripken Jr. Nevertheless, he's an extreme upside play. Prior to 2009, Sizemore was one of the best outfielders in all of baseball. He combined power, speed and skill to be the total package in center field. Ever since then, he's suffered through a performance decline and a number of severe injuries, even missing the entirety of the 2012 season. Today, Sizemore is recovering from another microfracture surgery. While Sizemore is not expected to be ready for Opening Day, and has said he won't sign a contract until he's healthy, he could provide value on a pro-rated contract as a fourth outfielder.
I wouldn't expect Sizemore to be anything like the player he was in 2008, truly. One would have to imagine that his leg and back injuries will have sapped his speed and range. If Sizemore is going to be a valuable major-league contributor again, it will be through excellent bat value, and, perhaps some decent defense in a corner. While Sizemore is unlikely to ever be a five-to-eight-win player ever again, if he could provide better-than-league average hitting (say, a 100-110 wRC+ and 10%+ walk rate) after he returns from injury, he could be a decent pickup.
Adding Sizemore on a low-cost contract, especially one that would lock him in for a second year (either as a two-year deal or with a club option) gives the Rays a valuable asset if he does rebound. And at the very least, he'd be a hedge against players like Brandon Guyer, Sam Fuld, or others providing below-replacement performance at the big-league level.
[Update: I've updated this post to reflect Sizemore's statement that he won't be signing with a team until he's healthy, which would probably be June at the very earliest.]
So, there you have it. Three guys who could help the Rays win this year, without putting a damper on future seasons with long contracts. And none of these guys would block critical players going forward, if used wisely.
I guess the problem with this article is that, well, I'm not Andrew Friedman. These are a few low-cost, high-upside acquisitions that I think might help out this team. The only thing is, judging by track records, the Rays front office knows much better about these things than I do. Perhaps instead of posting articles like this, we should just sit back, wait and see what the Rays do.
All stats from FanGraphs.