The Rays surprisingly waived C.J. Cron, but the motive behind the decision wasn’t money.
Early in the offseason, the penny-pinching Rays made a surprising move that caused some shock in the league. After hitting a career-high 30 home runs in 2018 and being one of the best Rays hitters, C.J. Cron suddenly found himself out of a job on the big league roster. Although he would eventually be claimed and sign a deal with the Minnesota Twins, his initial release was questioned rigorously.
For an individual who was durable (he played in 140 games in 2018) and posted a 151 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, Cron’s demotion appeared to be a puzzling move.
But was it?
The Tampa Bay Rays are notorious around the league as a team that will cut productive players in order to save money. Think Corey Dickerson last year. As a small-market team that does not bring in much revenue, the Rays do not have the luxury of spending big on free agents. What is perplexing about the move is that Cron, who was set to make around $5 million in arbitration, would not have cost the Rays an inordinate sum of money and would have provided at least average production at first base.
It’s never a good look when one of baseball’s cheapest franchises cuts a player who was due to get a raise. But the Rays did not intend to cut him initially. One of the worst-kept secrets at the start of the offseason was that any team could trade for Cron. Unfortunately for the slugging first baseman, he is not known for his defense; as a result, his defensive versatility is limited to first base and he functions better as a designated hitter. That was going to limit his suitors despite his powerful swing.
And for teams who could use Cron’s services, what exactly was the incentive to try and trade for him now? Clubs knew that he would eventually end up on the free agent market where they could sign him for a small deal. There was no need for any club to act impulsively and give up a prospect for the powerful but limited Cron.
Baseball analysts do not say this often in baseball, but the Rays’ rationale for dumping Cron was surprisingly not about money. Here’s why:
The Rays Value Of Roster Spots
Evaluating value in baseball is a curious thing. A team with a roster crunch usually seeks to value players who are cheap and under club control longer more than talented players who cost more. Constructing a baseball 40-man roster is like playing a chess match—each piece plays a role and has value towards strategically beating your opponent.
Baseball is no different than chess in this scenario. Although numerous players on the 40-man roster will not see the field in the regular season, they still hold an important place in an organization’s plans. Maybe one of the prospects becomes a better replacement for Cron. Or maybe leaving Cron vulnerable is part of a bigger plan to checkmate the Rays’ top opponents, the Red Sox and Yankees.
But it was clear that despite Cron hitting 30 home runs and posting his career-best offensive year, the Rays did not value him as much as one would think. Cron was merely a knight in the way of a pawn that had a clear path chessboard. Getting rid of Cron cleared up a valuable roster spot that the Rays held much value for. Rays’ senior Vice President Chaim Bloom confirmed this to SB Nation:
“This was a tough call obviously because of what C.J. did this past year and what he meant to our group,” Bloom said to DRays Bay, a SB Nation blog. “We certainly haven’t closed off the possibility of a return. But with many as deserving players that we have on our club that need playing time and also the number of possible paths for our off-season to take, it didn’t make sense to us to commit to him right now.”
And that’s what happened with Cron. He got sacrificed so another player could have their opportunity.
So Who Takes Cron’s Spot?
Cron’s situation was different than Dickerson’s last year. Dickerson just got axed. Cron was shuffled around by the Rays in an attempt to unload him to another club, but as aforementioned, that would have not made sense for any club. As a result, the Rays went with their Plan B.
Therefore, the path is clear for someone else to take Cron’s spot on the board. As it so happens, the Tampa Bay Rays have astounding depth at the first base position, a fact that made the decision to designate Cron for assignment much easier.
Besides Jake Bauers and Ji-Man Choi, two players with great potential and showed flashes of it in 2018, prospects Joe McCarthy and Nathan Lowe are first basemen that are now on the 40-man roster.
This also does not include two-way player Brandon McKay, who can pitch and play first base. If Cron remained on the roster, it is likely that one of the Rays’ valuable prospects would have been left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft.
Rays Have Money To Spend—If They Choose
Cron’s dismissal clears up the 40-man roster but not necessarily the 25-man roster. After finishing with a surprising 90-72 record, the Rays genuinely believe that they could compete in a division stacked with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox.
Luckily for the Rays, first base and designated hitters are plentiful in the free agent market this offseason. Whether the Rays want to admit it, they do have the salary to take on a sizable (by their standards) contract if they choose to do so. The rays have already started to do this with the recent Charlie Morton acquisition.
If the Rays are serious about contending, their best course of action would be to sign a slugger on a rich, short-term deal and hope it is enough to combat the Yankees and Red Sox.
One candidate that instantly comes to mind is Nelson Cruz. He had spent the last four years with the Seattle Mariners, mostly serving as their designated hitter while occasionally playing in the outfield. Although Cruz’s defense is below-average, Cruz still has a reliable swing. Over the course of his time with Seattle, he has profiled as an above-average hitter despite aging into his late thirties now.
Cruz’s age, and the fact that he is a limited player now, has resulted in him receiving lukewarm interest thus far in free agency. Sports analysts are only suggesting a handful of teams may be interested in signing him.
As the tweet shows, the teams interested all come from the American League where Cruz can be entrenched in the designated hitter spot. All three of these clubs make sense for Cruz. The Astros have a need at designated hitter as Evan Gattis, Brian McCann, and Marwin Gonzalez, who all have taken at-bats there, are gone or likely gone. The White Sox are looking to speed up their rebuild as they showed with the Ivan Nova trade, and the Rays are looking to contend against the behemoths of the American League East.
Nelson Cruz is one of the few targets the Rays may consider to fill the DH spot in their lineup. Photo credit: The Tampa Bay Times
The Tampa Bay Rays have an important offseason. As the Winter Meetings continue to roll on, the Rays will be hard at work, trying to improve a team that surprised in 2018. One of those improvements should be adding Cruz on a one- or two-year deal.
*All statistics and information courtesy of ESPN.com, FanGraphs.com, or Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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