The terms market driven and positive arbitrage have become synonymous with how the Rays operate. This is especially true during the winter months, in which they go head-to-head with the rest of the league for talent on the open market. These terms will continue to define the Rays conduct business, but it looks like we can add asset collection to the list of buzzwords.
On the surface, the Rays stepped a bit out of bounds when they exercised their $6.5 million option on David DeJesus for the 2014. They nearly broke the mold by announcing that the pact is a multi-year deal with an option for a third season. It is no secret, the Rays operate with a thin margin for error, so paying a sizable portion of their projected payroll to an aging platoon player seemed off.
This is not a knock on DeJesus. He is being paid fairly for his skill-set and projected production. But that’s the thing; the Rays are not usually in the market value business. At the same time, the business is changing. Players are signing long-term contracts before they hit free agency. Teams appear willing to pay a bit more to keep impending free agents in house. The windfall of cash from new national television contracts beginning next season provides additional revenue to make it all happen. This means a thinner free agent market with a premium price tag for those who are freely available. It also makes puts added emphasis on trading and leverage to those teams with spare parts.
Tampa Bay – with limited resources and flexibility – appear to be adapting to the transformation by collecting assets. DeJesus is one of those pieces. The Rays could have paid DeJesus the $1.5 million buyout and hope to re-sign him at a lesser salary. By doing so they would have subjected him to the wolves of the winter. And while DeJesus would have been unlikely to break the bank, it only takes one loser in the Jacoby Ellsbury sweepstakes to swoop in with a better-than-the-Rays-can-offer guarantee to dash any hopes of a return.
So instead of taking the risk on losing DeJesus in the name of saving a few dollars, the team held on to their asset. They are likely to do the same with names like Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Sam Fuld and others. A player like Joyce may not seem like a fit anymore; not with an escalating salary and diminishing role. But for a modest cost, the Rays can guarantee asset protection without competition from the open market by tendering a contract offer for next season. Even if the 2014 plan does not include Joyce, they can secure product, take advantage of smaller marketplace, and use him to acquire another piece. Or perhaps, the team decides Joyce, and his salary, is a better option than the available options should the market play differently than expected.
In the age of instant analysis, paying market value is generally regarded as unfavorable. It is amplified when the payee is a team with a smaller stream of revenue. But because of the modified landscape, paying more to ensure you have the assets in place may be a little more commonplace as the talent pool becomes more shallow. Tampa Bay cannot afford to overpay — or pay close to market rate — for everyone. At the same time they cannot risk losing out altogether.
The DeJesus deal may not be one the Rays would have made last year or the previous one; however, Andrew Friedman appears to be gathering as many pieces as he can now and try to figure out where they fit later. It is not a perfect scenario, but one better than the alternative; being without commodities and the means to acquire new ones.