Monday, October 29, 2007

Unorthodox Free Agent Solutions: Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera

Continuing our series of moves that make too much sense to happen, so they won't:

Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera to the Devil Rays

You can stop laughing now. Why would these Yankee icons jump to the AL East cellar?

Well, for one, Tampa will be the best team in the division if they add these three. You might not realize this, but the Rays project as an 80-win team next year. In fact, they had .500 talent this year, except for those pesky fielding issues.

The Rays' 2008 ZIPS Projections show that next year's Rays should feature an offense significantly better than the league average. The pitching staff, which led the AL in strikeouts this year, is headed by a very strong 1-2 of Scott Kazmir and Jamie Shields, plus a 3-4 of Andrew Sonnanstine and J.P. Howell, who would be league-average starters with a better defense behind them.

The team as a whole is very young and has big breakout potential. So what are they missing?

- Defense
- A shortstop
- A catcher
- A closer

The three Yankees won't help Tampa's fielding, but team defense is subject to heavy fluctuations and it's very likely the Rays defense will improve by 50 runs or more next year due to regression alone. Evan Longoria gets rave reviews for his glove, and should be a big help when he arrives.

As for the other holes, A-Rod, Posada, and Rivera fit them like a glove. Check out this potential 2008 lineup:

LF Crawford
CF Upton
SS A-Rod
1B Pena
C Posada
3B Longoria
DH Gomes
RF Young
2B Iwamura

This is a lineup whose WORST projected hitter is probably Delmon Young, and Delmon is as good a bet as any player to pull a B.J. Upton and explode on the scene next year. High-upside players like Rocco Baldelli and Elijah Dukes remain on the bench, possibly providing a big impact; Baldelli can DH if healthy.

Meanwhile, the pitching looks more than good enough to complement the hitters and win 90+ games for several years in a row:

SP Kazmir
SP Shields
SP Sonnanstine
SP Howell
SP Davis/Price/Hammel

RP Rivera
RP Wheeler
RP Reyes
RP Balfour
RP Dohmann

Remember, you can throw out the 2007 ERAs for Sonnanstine and Howell; they were sabotaged by terrible defense. These guys were not that far behind Kaz and Shields this year in fielding-independent pitching.

The fifth starter's job should eventually go to Wade Davis or David Price, but neither is likely to stick in the rotation for at least a few months. For now, the spot will most likely go to a placeholder like Jason Hammel who won't actively hurt the team.

Tampa's bullpen was terrible in 2007, although a lot of the blame goes to the defense. Rivera brings a much needed stopper; perhaps no other team in the majors would benefit more from adding an ace at the back of the pen. Meanwhile, Wheeler and Reyes are not bad pitchers, and should be serviceable as a bridge to the new closer.

We haven't gotten to the most important point yet: the future. This Devil Rays team will stick together. Of all the players listed above, only Reyes is eligible for free agency after 2008, and only Pena after 2009. Everyone else is locked up for at least three years at below-market prices, so if A-Rod really wants to be with a perennial contender, this is the place for him.

Furthermore, this team is very young. The four starters average 25 years of age next year. No lineup regular will be 30 on Opening Day 2008. The three Yankees and Carlos Pena will see some age-related decline, but time will work in Tampa's favor for the rest of the roster. In 2010, Carl Crawford and Shields will be 28, Kazmir 26, Upton 25, Young and Longoria 24. That's a hell of a core at or before their peak years.

As far as money goes, the $55 million/year required to sign these three will obviously be a lot for a small-market team. On the other hand, who has more money to burn than the Devil Rays? A couple of big names and a winning season will give instant credibility to the franchise, giving them a reasonable chance of developing a fan base. Is Tampa really better off just cashing their revenue sharing checks and never attempting to contend?

There is no way the Devil Rays sign A-Rod, let alone all three of these guys. But if he's not lying about wanting a secure future with Posada and Rivera, this is probably the best scenario for the three of them.

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