What had been a troublingly quiet off-season for the Rays—they had signed no major league free agents and made just one player-for-player trade—changed on Thursday, with Tampa Bay pulling off a pair of moves. First, the Rays completed a four-player trade with the Rockies, getting outfielder Corey Dickerson and minor-league third baseman Kevin Padlo for lefty reliever Jake McGee and minor league righty German Marquez. Tampa Bay also made official the signing of former Orioles outfielder/first baseman Steve Pearce to a one-year, $4.75 million contract.
Those moves appear to be the Rays’ attempt to provide an upgrade to their lineup (something that I highlighted in their Winter Report Card last week), and that's something they need: Only the White Sox scored fewer runs than Tampa Bay in the American League last year. On the surface, Dickerson and Pearce appear to fit the bill: The former is a career .299/.345/.534 hitter heading into his age-27 season, and the latter had a breakout year in 2014, hitting .293/.373/.556 with 21 home runs in just 383 plate appearances for Baltimore. Unfortunately for the Rays, a deeper dive into Dickerson and Pearce’s numbers is less encouraging.
The obvious place to start is Dickerson’s home/road splits. A career Rockie, Dickerson has hit .355/.410/.675 at Coors Field in his career but just .249/.286/.410 on the road. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Rays are going to get only the road version of Dickerson; home/road splits of Rockies players are often overemphasized. It’s also not unusual for players to hit better at home regardless of the ballpark, as familiarity, comfort and confidence often play a significant role in those splits. A classic example is ex-Colorado outfielder Matt Holliday: While playing for the A's in 2009, his home OPS was 89 points higher than his road mark despite his being stuck in the pitching-friendly confines of the Oakland Coliseum.
There also appears to be a specific but yet-to-be-understood negative impact on Rockies hitters when they take to the road. One theory is that pitches behave differently at altitude, making it more difficult for Colorado’s hitters to adjust to pitch behavior outside of Denver's mile-high environment. Nonetheless, the history of the Rockies’ franchise strongly indicates that the biggest impact of playing at altitude is not the pitchers’ struggles at home, but the hitters’ struggles on the road.
Given all of that, there's reason to be confident that Dickerson will out-hit his career road splits as a member of the Rays. Still, it would be fair to expect his production to decline at least slightly due to his move from Coors to Tampa Bay’s pitching-friendly Tropicana Field. But his home/road splits are not the only cause for concern. For one thing, Dickerson went on the disabled list three times last year, once after fracturing two ribs on a dive in the outfield and twice for plantar fasciitis in his left foot. The rib injury was likely a fluke, but plantar fasciitis can be a chronic condition and can lead to injuries to the knees, hips or back due to favoring the injured foot. Dickerson isn’t particularly big (6’1” and about 200 pounds, and speed is not part of his game, so the concern isn’t acute. But the Rays will need to monitor the health of that left foot as Dickerson resumes baseball activities this spring.
Then there are the platoon splits for the lefty-swinging Dickerson. He has hit .313/.358/.577 against righties in his career but just .246/.299/.377 against southpaws. That strongly suggests that Dickerson should not be an everyday player but instead act as the strong-side of a strict platoon. That's where Pearce comes into play.
Tampa Bay has the potential to maximize its current roster through the use of platoons in rightfield, first base and designated hitter. The team has lefthanded hitters in Dickerson, first basemen Logan Morrison and James Loney and, in effect, infielder Nick Franklin (a switch-hitter who has hit 15 of his 16 career home runs batting lefthanded). Batting righty, the Rays have Pearce and outfielders Steven Souza Jr., Brandon Guyer and Mikie Mahtook. That could yield a trio of platoons that look like this (using career splits against opposite-handed hitters):
|position||lhh||vs. rhp||rhh||vs. lhp|
Doing that would require the Rays to carry five bench players (the inactive side of each platoon plus a utility infielder and a second catcher), but it could greatly boost the team’s productivity at each position. Compare those splits above to the aggregate performance the Rays received at each position last year:
The Rays still fall a bit short at DH, where they primarily employed John Jaso, Joey Butler and David DeJesus last year, all since departed. But a platoon is still their best chance to maximize production at that position, and the upgrades at the other two spots are obvious.
Put another way, here are the same-handed splits they’d be avoiding:
|position||lhh||vs. Lhp||rhh||vs. Rhp|
The other player Tampa Bay got along with Dickerson, Padlo, was a fifth-round pick out of a southern California high school in 2014. After a strong showing at rookie ball that year, the Rockies started him in the full-season Sally League for his age-18 season last year, but he got off to a miserable start there and was pulled back into extended spring training in mid May, then re-assigned to the short-season Northwest League in mid-June. He found his stroke there, but he’ll have to prove himself in full-season ball before he can be considered any kind of meaningful prospect.
In exchange for four team-controlled years of Dickerson (who has yet to reach arbitration) and Padlo's future, the Rays had to part with McGee. He's an outstanding lefthanded reliever who finished 2014 as the team’s closer but also struggled down the stretch, likely due to a loose body in his pitching elbow that was removed that December. Following that surgery, McGee didn’t return to action until May of last year, by which time Brad Boxberger had taken over as closer; McGee then suffered a torn meniscus in August that cost him five more weeks of the season. McGee will make $4.8 million via arbitration this season, his age-29 campaign, and will be a free agent after the 2017 season. He could very well re-establish himself as a closer in Colorado, however, and would likely be most valuable to the Rockies as a trade chip should he do so.
The Rockies likely have longer-term plans for the other pitcher in the deal: Venezuelan righty Marquez, who will turn 21 in late February. He spent all of the 2015 season in Class A, where he showed an ability to limit walks and home runs but had a below-average strikeout rate and middling results. A potential major league starter, Marquez throws in the low-90s with a curve and changeup but is generally unexceptional in terms of size and stuff and has been something of a fly-ball pitcher thus far in his young career.
Overall, that’s a fair swap. The Rockies get two years of an excellent reliever and a throw-in kid at a position they hope will be manned by Nolan Arenado well into the next decade. The Rays, meanwhile, get four years of an outfielder who is limited but has significant upside in their biggest area of need. This isn’t a trade that thrusts Tampa Bay into contention in the AL East, nor does it necessarily solve what had been a gaping hole at designated hitter, but it at least attempts to address the team’s lack of production. As for the Rockies, the deal is a bit of a shrug for now, with judgment reserved for whether or not they can cash in McGee prior to his free agency.