The Tampa Bay Rays have won at least 90 games in each of the last four seasons, and in five of six. Despite perhaps the worst financial standing of any team in baseball, they’re a powerhouse, masters of renewal, kings of innovation, giant slayers. On Tuesday, they made two additions (in one move) that suit their preferences and proclivities to a tee: catcher Ryan Hanigan and relief pitcher Heath Bell.
Hanigan, who came over from the Cincinnati Reds in the three-team trade, is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. He might be the best defensive catcher in baseball. One can count on one hand, with fingers left over, the number of backstops who frame pitches better, throw out would-be base-stealers more frequently or offer a more thoughtful approach to game-calling. For all three of those elements, only Yadier Molina may have him beat.
That’s one of the Rays’ favorite inefficiencies. They’ve saved dozens of runs, perhaps hundreds, over the past several seasons, by using Jose Molina to steal strikes on the edges of the zone. No other team values pitch-framing as highly as the Rays, and few have so great a need for a catcher who can gun down runners. Upon landing Hanigan, they locked him up for the next three seasons with a deal that (reflecting the low market value of the skills Tampa holds so dear) will pay him less than $11 million.
Another pet policy of GM Andrew Friedman is to pursue relievers who, for whatever reason, have become unwanted, even maligned. In the case of Heath Bell, the reasons for his fall from grace are fairly clear: a big contract to which he couldn’t live up; an inflated home-run rate; and an unfortunate self-promotion streak that grinds even on teammates, at times. Friedman got him with the idea that his strikeout and walk rates—both solid last season—will hold up, while Tropicana Field (a much better pitcher’s park than Chase Field, Bell’s former home) will act as a balm for his home-run rash. It’s a pretty good bet, especially given Tampa’s history, and especially given that all it cost him—all Hanigan and Bell cost Friedman—was a minor-league relief pitcher and a player to be named later. Unless the latter turns out to be of an extremely unusual caliber, for players so designated, that’s the sort of thievery Ryan Hanigan will prevent other teams from executing for the next three years.
It’s sometimes dangerous to give GMs too much credit for their past successes. Some executives start smart and go bad. Others are good at certain phases of team-building, but poor at others. In this case, though, with two archetypal Rays-style guys entering the fold at an apparent minimum of cost, I feel safe saying that Friedman has once again made his team a lot better, and might have them back in the pole position in the AL East if the season began tomorrow.Next post: Justin Morneau to Colorado Rockies and A.J. Pierzynski to Boston Red Sox Make Perfect Sense
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