The Tampa Bay Rays always have a plan. It never fully makes sense, it can seem like they’re actively shooting themselves in the foot, and then they just go off and win 90 games when it appeared that they were trying to tank.
Last year’s quizzical moves included designated outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment and then trading him to Pittsburgh after a 2.6 WAR 2017 season, sending their face of the franchise Evan Longoria to San Francisco, selling midseason by trading away ace pitcher Chris Archer (also to the Pirates), catcher Wilson Ramos, and closer Alex Colome, and becoming the first franchise to use “the opener,” the one-inning appearance at the beginning of games before letting the actual starting pitcher, or “primary pitcher” take over in the 2nd inning.
The Rays did all of that and won 90 games.
Sorry, I can’t stress that enough. Whatever they concoct within the walls of Tropicana Field seems more often than not to work. Well, they were back at it again this offseason when they designated first baseman and designated hitter C.J. Cron for assignment despite hitting 30 home runs and being worth just over 2 WAR in 2018.
The soon-to-be 29-year old Cron started his major league career in 2014 with the Los Angeles Angels but was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His debut came two years after Albert Pujols signed his monstrous 10-year, $240 million contract, which locked up Cron’s natural position at first base. Though Cron saw more action in the field as Pujols’ bouts of plantar fasciitis limited him to DH duties and placed him on the disabled list, the Angels cemented Cron’s fate when they signed Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani last offseason. With the desire to only have Ohtani DH, that pushed Pujols back onto the field and Cron to the bench. Ultimately, the Angels determined it would be easier to just move on from Cron and they traded him to Tampa Bay for a player to be named later.
Cron has always had a bit of power, running an above-average isolated power in all four of his seasons with the Angels, but he turned up the noise last season. Though he struck out a career-high 25.9% of the time, he also topped his previous career high of 16 home runs (reached the prior three seasons) by socking 30 dingers. Overall, his .253/.323/.493 triple-slash was good for a 122 wRC+. Oh, and that DFA from the Rays.
We have to remember that the Rays operate on a budget and MLB teams have significantly devalued slugging first basemen and designated hitters over the past couple seasons. Cron was projected to earn over $5 million in arbitration and the Rays chose to invest that money elsewhere while giving Cron’s positions to the younger, pre-arbitration-eligible Jake Bauers, Ji-Man Choi, and prospect Nathaniel Lowe. The DFA looked surprising on the surface, but when the Rays had the second-lowest payroll in baseball at just under $70 million, every dollar counts. Presumably they attempted to work out a trade, but evidently there were either no suitable offers or no teams were interested in working out a swap.
With Joe Mauer retiring and the Twins choosing to move on from Logan Morrison, that left two potential holes in the lineup at first base and DH. While Miguel Sano will inevitably move to one of these positions someday, the hope is still to keep the 25-year old entrenched at third base for as long as possible. Meanwhile, Robbie Grossman (career 104 wRC+) and Tyler Austin (career 100 wRC+, though just 404 career plate appearances) were currently penciled in as the DH and first baseman, respectively.
Cron enters the 2019 season with a career 111 wRC+ and makes Austin superfluous on the roster. When I wrote about potential Mauer replacements a few weeks ago, it felt that Twinkie Town commenters were bullish on Austin. Sure, he hit 9 home runs in 136 plate appearances (about 36 homers over a full season), but he actually hit just .236/.294/.488 (106 wRC+) with the Twins while striking out 30% of the time. Austin appears to have a little better patience at the plate, but Cron will hit for a better average and thus Cron is projected by Steamer to have a 115 wRC+ while Austin is expected to check in at 101. Admittedly Cron’s rosy projection is factoring in that his 2018 was for real, but it looks like he could regress a little more than that and still come out as the better hitter than Austin.
Austin is out of options for 2019 so he might suffer from a roster crunch before Opening Day. The Twins could make it a roster battle in spring training, but I don’t see what they could possibly learn about Cron and Austin that they don’t already know. I feel that the Twins might try to hold on to Austin for as long as possible, but it wouldn’t shock me if they attempt to outright him to Triple-A, just like they attempted and eventually succeeded on the second try with Kennys Vargas last offseason.
Meanwhile, it appears that the Twins have found a relatively cheap replacement for Mauer for this upcoming season. Depending on who you believe, the Twins have anywhere between $30-50 million to spend (which would bring them to the $105-125 million payroll range) so selecting Cron’s estimated $5 million arbitration salary over Austin’s league-minimum pre-arbitration salary won’t hamstring the franchise in 2019. The hope is that the Twins acquired a cheap, youngish slugger for the middle of their lineup, and it will be interesting to see who else is brought in throughout the rest of the offseason.