The Tampa Bay Rays may very well get to opening day with a team payroll of around $70M which is quite admirable for a team that competes with the likes of the Yankees and the Red Sox. Maybe that is why I find it fascinating to watch how the Rays operate. The opportunity to get a glimpse of the collective thought process may be rare, but it seems that such an opportunity has been afforded to those following closely enough to notice.
Ask yourselves why a team that plans to spend around $70M would dedicate over 10% of that amount to a free agent who hit .225 last season and costs twice as much as the guy he will replace. Seriously give that some consideration. Casey Kotchman played 1222 1/3 innings at 1B for the Rays last season and committed 2 errors. The only other guy to give the Rays double digit games at 1B last season was Dan Johnson, and he hit a paltry .119. On the other hand, Kotchman hit .306/.378/.422/.800 with 10 hr and 48 rbi. Despite the really solid season (2.9 WAR), Kotchman was not invited back to the Rays and found employment with Cleveland ($3M for 2012).
Obviously the Rays are looking for more power at first base, and they secured it in the form of Carlos Pena for $7.25M. The same Carlos Pena hit .225/.357/.462/.819 last year for the Cubs. Of Pena’s 111 hits 28 were home runs, though. Pena possesses an abundance of power – the application of which he finds to be somewhat of a challenge at times. Basically, he makes contact with the ball with a great infrequency. Pena struck out 161 times in just 493 at-bats in 2011. That practically makes him the left-handed Mark Reynolds who struck out a league-leading 196 times last year.
The all-or-nothing approach combined with a good eye for pitches outside the zone makes him strangely yet ideally suited for the Rays. As a team, the Rays need more offensive punch, and they must absolutely be efficient with the scoring opportunities they have. They finished 15th in all of baseball with 707 runs scored last season. The ranking seems respectable until you realize that their division competition includes the 1st (Boston – 874), 2nd (Yankees – 867), and 6th (Toronto – 743) most prolific scoring offenses in the game. The Rays ended the 2011 season 10th in the league in home runs, and again they trailed the Yankees (1st), Red Sox (3rd), and the Blue Jays (5th). The Rays simply lack the “big bombers” the competition has. No problem, right?
If you truly believe that a walk is as good as a hit, then Pena is your guy. He walked 101 times last season which helped prop up his on base percentage at .357. That sounds relatively unspectacular, but a guy named Albert Pujols only topped that by 9 points. Sure, Pujols hit 37 hr to Pena’s 28. Pujols also collected 99 rbi versus Pena’s 80. However, Pujols did also hit into 29 double plays while Pena only hit into 6. On average, Pujols will cost the Angels roughly $24M per year for the next decade. Pena will cost the Rays $7.25M for just one year. In this apples versus expensive oranges comparison, I find it difficult to imagine Pujols will really be worth over 3x what Pena will be worth.
The actual apples to apples comparison pits Kotchman versus Pena. The cost differential between the two players theoretically buys more power which translates to lineup protection as well. The intangible value of having someone that opponents “fear” in the batter’s box may not be some intangible after all. The Rays have basically placed a dollar value on it. It is not so much “bang for your buck” as it is the “Carlos Pena Effect”.
FYI – Carlos Pena’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2011 was .267 while Pujols had a .277 BABIP. Kotchman will make less in 2012 than either player, and his BABIP was .335. The lesson here? As Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler famously said, “hit ‘em where they ain’t”, and there “ain’t” nobody playing on the backside of the bleachers.