Why the Rays Got Better Today

I already wrote earlier about my thoughts on Matt Garza, and Joe covered the Cubs’ end of this deal, but let’s tackle how this trade affects the Rays for 2011. I’ll leave the prospect analysis of Archer, Lee, and Guyer to Marc, and just say that they’re generally considered to be some of the better players in the Cubs system. All three will likely spend a good chunk of 2011 in the minors, however, so we’ll set them aside for now.

For the upcoming Rays season, this deal essentially amounts to a swap of Garza for Robinson Chirinos and approximately $6 million in cash – the money they would have otherwise had to pay Garza through arbitration. In name value, it’s a big step backwards, and will likely be viewed as just a cost-saving move by the general public. In reality, though, there’s a good chance that the Rays will be better next year by trading Garza away.

Let’s start with Chirinos. While he’s a 27-year-old who has never set foot in the majors, he’s actually a pretty interesting piece. I asked Baseball America’s Jim Callis to compare him to John Jaso, and Callis stated that Chirinos was essentially Jaso with better defense, a little more power, and the ability to also play shortstop if need be. While he’s now a catcher, he’s a converted infielder, and he still has the speed to handle duties up the middle in a pinch.

Like Jaso, he’s not a scouting favorite, but his numbers are simply too good to be ignored for a catcher. Given Callis’ positive review and Chirinos’ superior minor-league performance, it wouldn’t be out of the question for him to get some significant playing time in the big leagues this year. At the least, he provides insurance in case either Jaso or Kelly Shoppach struggle or deal with injuries, and there are scenarios where he could simply outplay either (or both) of them.

Even if we take a lot of the air out of his minor-league numbers (he was a 26-year-old in Double-A, after all), it’s hard to project Chirinos as worse than a one-win player for 2011. Ronny Paulino was a one-win part-time catcher last year by hitting .259/.311/.354, and he didn’t run well or fill in at shortstop in his spare time. Given that few teams manage to get through an entire season with just two catchers, it is likely that Chirinos will play in the big leagues in 2011, and he might play quite a bit.

Still, swapping a roughly three-win pitcher in Garza for a possible one-win part-time catcher in Chirinos is a downgrade in talent. However, there are two other factors to consider, given the Rays current roster.

The most obvious is Garza’s replacement, who will almost certainly be Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays top pitching prospect and one of the best pitching prospects in the game. While he doesn’t throw as hard as Garza, he has better command and secondary stuff, and there’s a pretty good argument to be made that he will be at least Garza’s equal in 2011, and could be straight-up better.

If we look at Dan Szymobrski’s ZIPS projections for both, in fact, Hellickson was projected to throw 135 innings with a 3.58 ERA, while Garza was projected for 208 innings with a 3.84 ERA. On a rate basis, ZIPS prefers Hellickson, while Garza makes up some of that ground with his durability. Even if you don’t trust young pitchers, this looks like a wash, or close to it anyway.

Of course, Hellickson would have pitched for the Rays anyway, so we can’t just assume he’s going to be the recipient of all of Garza’s innings. By getting a rotation slot to begin the season, he’s probably in line for an extra 100 innings, while the other 100 will go to various pieces that will fill the role that Hellickson would have had. So, this isn’t a straight-up push, as Garza + Hellickson project to be about one-win better than Hellickson + Others. That win is essentially made up by the acquisition of Chirinos, so we can say that the Rays didn’t experience much of a shift in expected results today. There is not much difference between a Garza, Hellickson, and Replacement Catcher trio and a Hellickson, Chirinos, and Replacement Pitcher group.

However, this deal doesn’t end for the Rays today. By moving Garza, they also have another $6 million or so in cash to spend that they would not have had previously, and they still have a pretty glaring need for a designated hitter. As we laid out last week, there is an abundance of bat-only types on the market, and with $6 million to spend on the position, the Rays should have their pick of the litter.

Whether they use their new-found budget room to sign Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, or Johnny Damon, the Rays will be adding something like a +1 to +2 win DH to their roster. When you add that value to the extra innings they can give Hellickson and the addition of Chirinos as catching depth, it’s pretty easy to see the Rays actually coming out ahead of what they had with Garza still on the team.

Even if they hadn’t also acquired three other prospects from the Cubs, this was a deal worth doing for the Rays. The fact that they get additional future value simply puts this over the top as a big win for Tampa Bay.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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