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Analyzing the Rays’ Acquisition of José Martinez, Randy Arozarena

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The Tampa Bay Rays executed a blockbuster trade late Thursday night, sending highly-touted first-round pick (16th overall in 2018) in Matthew Liberatore and rookie-ball catcher Edgardo Rodriguez to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for outfielders José Martinez and Randy Arozarena.

The teams also exchanged 2020 MLB draft competitive balance picks with the Rays jumping up to the sandwich round between the first and second rounds (38th overall) and the Cardinals falling back between the second and third rounds (66th overall).

It’s a very aggressive move for a Rays team that, due to financial constraints, is typically hesitant to move their upper-tier prospects, especially those with front-of-the-rotation upside.

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To pull the trigger on such a move, the return would have to be significant … and not just for the immediate impact on the major league roster, but in future value as well.

José Martinez

First, we’ll look at the most immediate impact portion of the Rays’ haul: José Martinez. Martinez, 31, has been one of the most potent bats against left-handed pitching during his three-plus years in the majors.

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Martinez’s career .976 OPS against left-handed pitching ranks him 12th in the majors over the last four seasons. His 160 wRC+ (which is park-adjusted) was good for ninth overall.

All this despite limited at-bats due to both his defensive deficiencies in the outfield and the Cardinals’ glut of outfield talent. A move for him to the American League has long been anticipated as he could fill a regular role as a designated hitter. This is likely where he will see the most action while in Tampa Bay.

Advanced fielding metrics also suggest Martinez plays a slightly below-average but serviceable first base. With the Rays’ propensity for creative lineups, one would expect him to see time there as well. However, his outfield days are likely all but over.

Martinez fills a major need (as does the previously-acquired Hunter Renfroe) for the Rays as their 2019 squad struggled to hit lefties for power. As a team, Tampa Bay posted a middling .147 ISO against southpaws. Martinez’s career mark is a scorching .242.

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Incidentally, Renfroe features an even more robust .310 ISO. Compare that to Tommy Pham’s .138 mark in 2019 and that trade makes a bit more sense. The team appears directly targetting more run production against left-handed pitching.

As for the contractual aspects, Martinez is due to make an incredibly affordable $2,125,000 in 2020 plus has two years of arbitration remaining thereafter, giving the Rays three full years of control. He is far cheaper than previously-rumored power-hitting targets Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, and Carlos Santana. Of the three, only Cruz has fared better against southpaws (161 wRC+, .995 OPS) and that gap was marginal.

Randy Arozarena

Up until this past season, Arozarena was seen as an explosive athlete with considerable speed (ranked in the 96th percentile in his short 2019 stint in the majors), but merely an average baseball player likely destined for a fourth outfielder and pinch-runner role.

Then, following a broken hand in spring training, the former Cuban defector suddenly looked like a different player. After slugging for .433 and .437 in 2017 and 2018, respectively, he posted a whopping .571 mark in 2019 across the top two levels of affiliated ball.

Usually, when a player’s power output increases, there is a converse increase in swings-and-misses, but Arozarena’s strikeout rate actually dropped from 23.7 percent in 2018 to just 17 percent in 2019. Even his walk rate ticked up from 8.2 percent to 9.2 percent.

The Rays’ front office clearly believes it to be a maturation in approach rather than simply a hot run due for regression:

“Our staff saw adjustments that led to more contact and more impact,” said general manager Erik Neander. “Usually, there’s give-and-take between contact and impact, but that Randy improved both in 2019 gave us confidence to raise him to an everyday profile that contributes on both sides of the ball.”

The Rays have long sought not just an insurance policy for the oft-injured Kevin Kiermaier, but a player that could deliver a similar impact defensively.

This trade provides the flexibility not just to allow Kiermaier much-needed breaks throughout the season (he has not managed more than 129 games since 2015) or fill in for an extended period in case of injury, but the upside to be a potential long-term replacement down the road.

Arozarena, who will turn 25 before opening day, is not eligible for arbitration until 2022 and is under team control through 2025. He also has all three of his options remaining so a 2020 start in Triple-A and possibly a couple of trips on the shuttle are possible if not likely before he becomes a regular with the major league club.

Conclusion

While there is no doubt the Rays are taking a major risk giving up a potential frontline pitcher in Liberatore, they have acquired one of the most impactful bats against southpaws in baseball in Martinez as well as a potential five-tool outfielder if Arozarena can build on his stellar 2019 breakout season.

And they did it with almost no impact on the 2020 payroll.

They also managed to recoup some future value moving from 66th to 38th in the 2020 MLB draft. In 2019, the value differential of those slots was estimated to be almost double.

With their payroll and revenue limitations, Tampa Bay is forced to be creative to upgrade their major league roster and it appears they have once again done just that.

“We have high expectations for our major-league club, not just in 2020 but for the next few seasons. [This] trade raised those expectations,” Neander said. “Accumulating talent … is important, but it’s just as important to time up talent. To sync it up in a way that enables an extended run.

Get ready, Rays fans. These next few seasons could be something special.

 

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