Buster Olney has a new blog up on ESPN, and within notes the Rays have “sent signals” suggesting they are open to trades. This qualifies as news because previously, Andrew Friedman refused to answer phone calls, emails, and texts from inquiring teams—not really, but if you think that is legitimate, then hey, this is news. July 31 is a matter of weeks, not months, away and the rumors are going to continue to kick into gear, as suggested earlier this month.
The Rays are two games back of the Yankees for the Wild Card and 2 1/2 games back of first place. As such, people are going to get into a tizzy about possibly selling off parts, ignoring that the pieces in return could help the team, or the pieces that replace the sold pieces could replicate, or perhaps exceed the current performance. There is no surer way to raise a player’s perceived value within the fan base than for him to come up in trade rumors. The endowment effect triggers as soon as the possibility for a trade appears—either in longing for another team’s player, thus overrating the likes of players like Xavier Nady, or suddenly overrating the team’s own players—it never fails.
Self-evaluation is an important task for front offices to master, and the Rays have always appeared to be good at it. In 2006, they realized the team was years away from competition, and sold off the expiring contracts and otherwise cashable assets in an effort to amass as much talent as possible. In 2007, they bought and sold, acquiring a number of potential relievers. Ever since then, the Rays have mostly bought, with the exception of the Scott Kazmir deal, and even then, it was a necessity more than a choice. There is this false dichotomy that exists in which a team can only buy or sell, but not both. This club should be looking to do both.
Besides, look at the assets most likely to go. Nobody would have blamed the Rays for trading B.J. Upton over the offseason, and it’s hard to blame them now. People have given Upton too much grief during his time here without appreciating the things he does well, however his 2011 season is a disappointment. Not by the unrealistic standards laid out for him, but by his own, very realistic standards. Upton’s 94 OPS+ would mark the second-worst of his career since becoming a regular in 2007—falling ahead of only his 2009 season, in which he posted a 82 OPS+.
For years, the Rays have tried to extend Upton, and with his free agency date drawing ever nearer, the team has never been in the position to replace him quite like they are now. Desmond Jennings appears ready and Brandon Guyer isn’t far behind. By August, the Rays could conceivably have new players staffing left and center field, and that isn’t necessarily something that can be avoided. Neither Sam Fuld or Justin Ruggiano profile as legitimate starters, and Upton was going to walk via free agency, and is unlikely to merit draft pick compensation because the rubric doesn’t evaluate his abilities properly.
The other pieces most likely to be moved come out of the bullpen. If this last offseason hasn’t taught people that supposedly irreplaceable qualities like Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler, and Grant Balfour—three of whom were required at little to no cost through minor league deals or trades, remember—are actual quite fungible, then nothing will. Bullpens come and go, and should not require too much in the way of payroll. The Rays have Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell, and the youth under contract through next season, which could mean Juan Cruz is the most likely to go. Then again, some team might really desire Farnsworth, given the whole proven closer thing, and well, shoot, who are the Rays to tell another general manager that Santa Claus isn’t real?
Should the Rays deal a reliever, they have a stack of eligible arms in Triple-A, with Brandon Gomes, Jake McGee, Dane De La Rosa, and others. If they were somehow to convince a team to take Jeff Niemann, then Alex Cobb can slide back into the rotation. And so on. Even if the Rays sell a piece or two off, they have the reinforcements to maintain around the same talent level. In a sense, they’re just reshuffling the deck while possibly adding pieces that can help this season in ways the current squad can’t produce.
This team is probably the weakest of the last few years when it comes to positional players. If you go off the various playoff odd simulations out there, the Rays either have a 15 percent shot or a 19 percent shot. Even the liveliest optimist had to admit entering the season that the Rays needed some breaks to go their way (and against the Yankees) to make the playoffs—that’s just how it’s going to be most years. One way to create some additional breaks is by increasing the talent level, either now or in the future.
No, the new players aren’t guaranteed to be just as good as the players they replace in-season, but funny things can happen over short spans. Hell, did anyone expect Casey Kotchman to have an OPS more than 100 points higher than Evan Longoria on June 25? Baseball is a funny game, and some will use that to support the Rays chances this season, but still, you have to be honest in your evaluations, and if a 15-to-19 percent shot is enough to make you throw any idea of selling—even when the prospective return is unknown—to the curb, then honesty isn’t your best trait.