A Look at the Rays’ Latest Attempt to Expose the Market

Quirkiness runs rampant throughout the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Their manager rides his bike to work, their themed road trips turn heads, and now it appears they are collecting players with 50 games suspensions and criminal records.

Since his promotion to General Manager of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2005, Andrew Friedman has worked tirelessly to find creative ways of winning with a low budget. They’ve pioneered infield shifts, asset management in trades, and heavy usage of platoons. Friedman and his team of Ivy-League educated baseball operations analysts have been successful in many of their efforts to exploit market inefficiencies. Their efforts have netted them close to 92 wins per season since 2008. Another well publicized practice they’ve employed is acquiring players with previous makeup issues. While it’s fair at chalk up their sustained success to shrewd moves, it doesn’t appear their effort to acquire talented tainted by makeup issues is working.

Makeup is the scouting term for character. Among the factors that go into determining makeup are hustle, work ethic, coachability, preparation, and behavior. It’s an intangible that, much to the chagrin of many baseball executives, is completely incomputable. The overall makeup of a clubhouse goes into the chemistry of a ball club, an intangible most everyone agrees matters in baseball.

As I flipped through the various online rankings of Rays prospects and found the list contained even more players with hazardous makeup, I wondered if their tactic was working. I combed through the Rays organization, finding every player Andrew Friedman had acquired that had makeup questions. While the Rays relationship with bad makeup players seems to have begun with OFs Toe Nash and Josh Hamilton, we’ll leave them off the ensuing list because they were acquired before Friedman was even in the organization.

It’s best to sort the following players into three lists:

Acquisitions

The Rays’ abysmal attendance since their inception has caused them to be creative on the open market. They look for undervalued players they can afford to take a risk on.

The Rays made a splash in 2011, signing the notorious clubhouse cancer and steroid user Manny Ramirez to a $2 million dollar deal. Ramirez, one of the best hitters in the past quarter century, was famous for a bad attitude in Boston and Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the Rays took a gamble on his bat which had produced a 140 wRC+ in his 320 at-bats in 2010. Ramirez played five games for the Rays before being suspended 100 games for his second positive PED test and consequently retiring.

                Games played: 5              rWAR: -0.3

Tampa Bay’s talent evaluators swooned after former top overall draft choice Matt Bush made the transition to a reliever. The Rays gambled that with a live arm, Bush could become a bargain in the back end of a bullpen. They scooped him up after a 2009 season in which Bush was traded by the Padres and released by the Blue Jays within a span of multiple drunken incidents in two months.Bush pitched 46 games in the Rays system before being charged with his second DUI. He is now serving a 51 month sentence in prison after yet another DUI.

                Games Played: 0              rWAR: 0.0

Fausto Carmona looked like he was going to become a top of the rotation starter for Indians in 2006. Then injuries set in. Then it turned out Fausto Carmona didn’t exist. In 2012, Carmona was suspended for three weeks for false identification. It turned out he was really Roberto Hernandez. The Rays picked up Hernandez, who threw 151 innings with a 4.63 FIP. Not even pitcher WAR, which puts good weight into innings pitched, valued Hernandez as a replacement level pitcher. Ruben Amaro Jr. gave Hernandez $4.5 million this offseason on a one year deal.

Games Played: 32            rWAR: -0.6

High Draft Picks

The Rays drafted OF Delmon Young with the first pick of the 2003 draft. Young quickly ascended to the top of prospects lists, heralded as a future superstar. It wasn’t until Young hurled a bat at an umpire in AA game on April 26, 2006 that his makeup became an issue. He was suspended for 50 games, only to return to the organization in late June. Young posted a 1.6 WAR in 192 games with the club following the suspension in 2006-2007. To the Rays’ credit they sent him packing in 2007 in exchange for the hot-headed RHP Matt Garza.  Young was reacquired in late 2013 after five and a half seasons of bad defense, average offense, and an arrest for drunken harassment. Young is currently a free agent, unlikely to be re-signed.

Games Played: 215         rWAR: 2.1

This policy of looking over make-up issues has carried over into other high draft picks as well. We’ll give the Rays a break and not tally the WAR for these draft picks because none of the players have spent significant time in the majors.

They drafted OF LeVon Washington in the first round in 2009 after reports that the outfielder did not meet academic requirements to enroll at the University of Florida. Washington didn’t sign after failing to reach an agreement with the Rays, despite reports that the two parties were quite close on the money. He’s currently a member of the Indians farm system.

OF Josh Sale, a 2010 first round pick signed for $1.5 million. Sale was underwhelming in Rookie ball in 2011 before being handed a 50 game suspension for methamphetamines. He was then suspended indefinitely by the club after posting a Facebook status bragging about getting thrown out of a night club for throwing pennies at a stripper and making her cry. It seems doubtful his playing career will resume with the Rays.

Top prospect and 2011 first round pick Taylor Guerrieri is currently serving a 50 game suspension after his testing positive for marijuana use for the second time. His makeup was a concern for many teams in the draft after he suddenly transferred high schools in the middle of his senior year. Guerrieri’s future still looks bright as a plus arm ranked among the Rays’ top 10 prospects by both Jason Parks and the Baseball America staff.

Tim Beckham will always be known as the player chosen instead of Buster Posey. Given a $6.15 million dollar bonus as the first player in 2008, Beckham hasn’t developed quite like they expected. Beckham was suspended for 50 games for his second positive test for marijuana. He was called up in 2013 at the age of 23 and given eight at-bats in September. He tore is ACL this offseason and should miss a significant portion of 2014, meaning he’ll likely get his first chance to play a full season in the major leagues seven years after being drafted. One scout I spoke with projected him as a utility player going forward.

Following the theme of 50 game suspensions, 2B Ryan Brett was penalized after testing positive for amphetamines in 2012. Brett’s hustle and makeup have been praised since the suspension, becoming the subject of our favorite ‘scrappy’ and ‘blue-collar’ adjectives. Hell, Baseball America even compared him to Pete Rose.

The Rays’ 2013 minor league player of the year OF Andrew Toles has been down a lengthy road of adverse encounters with his previous teams. He was dismissed from the University of Tennessee as a sophomore for “disciplinary reasons” according to head coach Dave Serrano. Toles subsequently enrolled at the junior college powerhouse of Chipola (Fla.), only to be suspended and benched for undisclosed reasons. Toles has avoided trouble in the Rays organization so far, although the history is troubling.

Current Rays

RHP Josh Lueke, who was charged with rape in 2009 and served 42 days in prison for false imprisonment, has posted a 6.93 ERA for the Rays in parts of the past two years. Lueke’s plus fastball is about the only thing keeping him on the 40 man roster.

                Games Played: 22            rWAR: -0.4

Along the same lines as the aforementioned Hernandez, RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo used to be a somewhat successful closer for the Marlins. However, that was under the false name of Leo Nunez. Oviedo too served a suspension for false identification and signed with Rays on January 22, 2013. He didn’t recover from Tommy John surgery in time for 2013 season, but was brought back on a $1.5 million dollar deal on December 5. It remains to be seen if the Rays’ commitment to Oviedo will work out, but at age 31, it’s unlikely he will be back to previous form.

Games Played: 0              rWAR: 0.0

They deserve credit for gambling on SS Yunel Escobar. He was traded from the Braves after Bobby Cox deemed the young shortstop too immature to stay with the organization. He was traded by the Blue Jays after an incident where Escobar inscribed a homophobic slur into his eye black. However, Escobar played above average defense in 2013 and was retained for $5 million dollars in 2014.

Games Played: 155         rWAR: 3.3

Takeaways

Friedman has seemingly rolled the dice again this winter, this time on reliever Heath Bell. Bell’s 250 pound frame has raised concerns over his dedication to conditioning. He publically stated that he had lost respect for his manager Ozzie Guillen in Miami in 2012, only to be called out on Twitter by two of his teammates. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal tweeted he had heard Bell’s behavior didn’t sit well amongst his teammates in Arizona. Bell is coming off a pair of disappointing seasons in which he posted a 5.37 and 4.11 RA9 in respective seasons.

It’s not that the Rays are taking on significant financial gambles. Many of the players acquired through free agency and the trade market came cheaply because of their makeup issues. Outside of bad publicity, both Ramirez and Bush cost nothing after their respective suspensions. However, when it comes to drafting players with questionable makeup, the real price is the opportunity cost. On top of Josh Sale’s signing bonus, the cost of his acquisition includes opportunity to draft another player.

Gambling on players who were let go for makeup issues along with disappointing performance is a risky tactic. They have seemed to hit on Escobar, and may squeeze some value out of Oviedo. Their group of prospects who have 50 game suspensions under their belt retains promise.  although even those players contain the risk of recidivism. The Bush and Ramirez acquisitions blew up in their face, as they fell back into their pattern of bad behavior. The talent they bet on with Hernandez and Young failed to rebound. The draft looks like a real bad place to bet on makeup for the Rays, and scouting director R.J Harrison has acknowledged such in recent interviews.

As much credit as the Rays deserve for other successful tactics, it doesn’t seem gambling on poor makeup players is one of them. The players often fall victim to recidivism or fail to return to previous talent levels. Recouping only 4.1 wins from the 429 games from major league players on this list reflects how poorly this approach has played out.  That doesn’t count the four first round picks they’ve spent on players who’ve encountered suspensions and other problems. They’ve spent nearly $9.2 million in signing bonuses on Beckham, Guerrieri, and Sale. Those three have combined for 150 games in suspensions, plus Sale’s indefinite suspension.

It may be time for the Rays start searching for new market inefficiencies, because it doesn’t seem the market for players with both previous makeup issues and poor performance is particularly fruitful.

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Cots MLB Contracts. The Wins Above Replacement stats are from B-Ref.

Daniel Schoenfeld is currently researching injury projection in pitchers among other research topics. He can be contacted on Twitter @DanielSchoe.

Featured Image courtesy of http://www.blogs.eagletribune.com

2 Responses to “A Look at the Rays’ Latest Attempt to Expose the Market”

  1. chris moran

    Good article overall. A couple things:

    Manny Ramirez’ reputation is less “notorious clubhouse cancer” and more “weird guy that is one of the best hitters of all-time.” Also, it’s not fair to characterize guys that used false identities or lie about their ages as “bad makeup guys.” Nobody says that about Miguel Tejada.

    The Hernandez signing didn’t go poorly. He posted a 3.60 xFIP. Sure he’s always underachieved his xFIP, but he had career-best walk and strikeout rates with the Rays.

    The Bush and Ramirez signings didn’t exactly blow up because there was very little risk involved. Ramirez signed for $2 million, and Bush was a minor league free agent.

    Reply
  2. Daniel Schoenfeld

    Chris, I appreciate the feedback.

    You’re right on Manny. I’ve heard he was one of the hardest working guys in baseball; it was more that his antics caused distractions more than he was a bad guy.

    I like to look at xFIP as more of a statistic that is indicative of future performance rather than a good one to analyze past value, somewhat like BABIP. When his homerun rate never stabilizes over a large sample size, it’s fair to judge off of ERA and FIP in my opinion.

    Good point, I will work on the phrasing.

    Reply

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