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Hawpe Takes His Talents to Tampa Bay

Brad Hawpe, who cleared waivers after recently being designated for assignment by the Rockies, has reportedly been signed by the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are currently deadlocked with the Yankees for first place in the American League East, and designated hitter is one spot were they could use some help. The Rays have struggled to get decent production from the DH spot all season: Pat Burrell disappointed before finally being let go earlier this season, while Willy Aybar, Hank Blalock (remember him?) and, most recently, Dan Johnson all hitting poorly in the chances they were given.

Hawpe was primarily a right fielder in Colorado, but advanced metrics saw him as awful out there, perhaps the worst in the game. Moreover, the Rays are set with Carl Crawford in left, and a combination of Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, and Gabe Kapler in right. I guess Hawpe could always play center if B.J. Upton gets into “trouble” again, that would be fun!

Hawpe can probably still hit, assuming his injury issues from earlier this season aren’t bothering him. Yes, his .255/.343/.432 2010 line (.336 wOBA, 101 wRC+) in what is still probably the most favorable home park to hitters in the majors is less than impressive for a DH, but Hawpe did hit very well in full-time play the four seasons previous, posting wRC+s of 120, 130, 126, and 130 from 2006-2009 respectively. His ZiPS RoS projection for the rest of the season is for a .382 wOBA. That assumes he’ll still be in Colorado the rest of the season, but after (crudely) knocking off about about 10 points of wOBA for the change in parks and another 10 for moving to the AL, he’s still at around .360.

Willy Aybar and Dan Johnson have been sharing the Rays DH spot lately. Aybar is having a down year (.297 wOBA), as well , but has been a useful bat in previous seasons and is also a helpful right-handed backup at first and third. His ZiPS ROS is only .323, which suggests he’s best deployed as productive lesser half of a DH platoon with Hawpe. Johnson is a bit more interesting. Johnson first came to the Rays in 2008, and while he was already 28, the .425 wOBA (in 486 PA) he put up in AAA was still impressive. After spending 2009 playing in Japan, Johnson re-signed with the Rays for 2010, and again raked in AAA with a .445 wOBA in 426 PA. However, upon getting his call to the majors, Johnson has been pretty bad in 59 PA, with only a .295 wOBA. ZiPS RoS is not impressed, seeing only a .304 wOBA from Johnson the rest of the way. So if Johnson is the one who gets the axe in favor of Hawpe, that would be understandable given these projections.

CHONE’s August update, which takes into account current-season minor league numbers (I don’t think ZiPS RoS takes 2010 minor league numbers into account) paints a different picture, however. CHONE’s “R150” column is park- and league-neutral offensive linear weights above average per 150 games. CHONE projects Hawpe as a +5/150 true talent hitter, while Johnson, likely on the strength of his minor league performance, is projected at +17/150. So on one hand, one has ZiPS’ translations of Johnson’s minor league numbers from previous seasons and his meager (almost irrelevant) major league results from 2010, and on the other, CHONE’s translations of his minor league numbers including this season giving drastically different results. Both CHONE and ZiPS are excellent projection systems, but this enters into the tricky and much-debated ground of minor league translations, which is an issue beyond the space to pursue here.

Rather than “choosing” between projection systems, my inclination (assuming that Johnson is out), is to say that the Rays are probably making the right choice given their situation: neck-and-neck with the Yankees and with the Red Sox not completely out of the Wild Card picture. They have good reason to think Hawpe can still hit fairly well, while Johnson is a wild card given the uncertainty involved in projections based on minor league performance. The Rays’ scouts might also have seen some things in Johnson that concerned them. The Rays are probably only on the hook for about $100,000 for Hawpe over the rest of the season, so even though it’s probably only a few runs difference at most the move seems like a smart one for Tampa Bay given what is at stake. As Jonah Keri would say, it’s about the extra 2%.

Having said that, here’s hoping Dan Johnson gets a fair opportunity (i.e., at least a couple hundred PAs) in the major leagues somewhere soon. In a league in which Mark Kotsay was part of a DH platoon, he surely deserves it.