Like a 14-year-old me trying to hide the fact that his voice is cracking, baseball is changing. In the last decade-plus, we’ve seen the introduction of instant replay, changes to the instant replay rule, more changes to the instant replay rule and also changes to the instant replay rule. And some other stuff too.
But this year, MLB teams will have even more changes to deal with, as rosters expand to 26 players and a somewhat controversial rule is implemented requiring newly introduced pitchers to face a minimum of three batters — if they don’t complete the inning.
How teams will approach the extra roster spot is an open question, but the offseason moves of one of baseball’s shrewdest operators may hold a clue.
The Tampa Bay Rays, to the irritation of many a Yankees fan, excel at squeezing every bit of value from their roster. Since 2010, they’ve had six seasons of at least 90 wins. In that time, they’ve never ranked higher than 20th in year-end payroll, according to Cot’s Contracts — and they only rose as high as 20th once, typically hovering between 27th and 29th over the last decade. They shouldn’t be this good! But they are.
One of the reasons for that success is their embrace of innovation. Tampa Bay has been at the leading edge of two of the game’s recent signature trends: shifting and bullpenning. What were, at one time, fringe tactics have become commonplace. If you were going to pick a test paper to cheat off, there are few options better than the Rays’.
So how might they approach the 26-man roster? Like an astronomer hunting for a new planet, we have to analyze things indirectly. New planets don’t just announce themselves! They pass in front of stars, ever so slightly dimming the light that star emits and allowing us to deduce their presence. Jose Martinez is our dim star.
On Jan. 9, the Rays acquired Martinez, a first baseman/outfielder, along with outfielder Randy Arozarena in exchange for left-handed pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, who was ranked 41st on MLB.com’s 2019 prospect ranking.
Martinez has, as Liam Neeson’s character in “Taken” would say, “a very particular set of skills,” except it’s really just one skill these days: mashing lefty pitching.
To be fair, Martinez has been above average against both righties and lefties for most of his brief career. His wRC+ against lefties in 2017 was 241; against righties, 107. In 2018, those rates were 116 and 130, respectively. He dipped significantly against righties last year, however, sporting a below average 85 wRC+ while maintaining a 160 wRC+ against southpaws. Some of that discrepancy might be explained by a right shoulder injury he sustained in August that sidelined him for a few weeks. But, at age 31, a skills decline is certainly possible.
But right/left splits are only part of Jose Martinez’s story. This next part is key: he is, not to be unkind, an atrocious defender. Playing exclusively in the outfield in 2019, Martinez compiled a -9 outs above average, per Baseball Savant. To give some context, -9 OAA would rank 84th out of 92 qualified outfielders. And Martinez didn’t even qualify, failing to reach the requisite innings in the field. If he had, his ranking would almost certainly be worse.
There’s another important aspect to Martinez’s presence on the Rays: he’s not projected to be in the team’s everyday lineup, according to Roster Resource. Granted, there will likely be a lot of moving parts to Tampa Bay’s lineup and Martinez will surely get his fair share of plate appearances between DH, first base and outfield, but it’s worth noting that, at least for now, he’s projected as a bench player.
So why would the Rays trade a top-50 prospect for a package headlined by a 31-year-old with no defensive value who may only be able to hit lefties? Perhaps the Rays see an opportunity with the 26-man roster to carry a limited player with a “particular skill” and deploy him tactically through the season. Remember that three-batter minimum rule mentioned earlier? If there’s a lefty pitcher brought in to face Austin Meadows in the late innings, Jose Martinez may well appear in the on-deck circle a batter or two down the road to take advantage. He could be a useful weapon.
To be fair, I’m not suggesting Martinez is the 26th man on Tampa Bay’s roster. He’s not. But it’s the 26-man roster that allows Tampa the luxury of carrying him.
Now, what does this have to do with the Yankees? With a roster that’s largely set, there are really only a handful of decisions to be made at the margins. Projecting a four-man bench, the Yankees will certainly carry a backup catcher (presumably Kyle Higashioka), a fourth outfielder (Mike Tauchman), and a backup infielder (either Tyler Wade or Thairo Estrada). That leaves one spot and Ford could be the beneficiary if the Yankees approach the decision as it appears the Rays have.
Ford, of course, is different than Martinez. He’s not a butcher defensively and actually accrued 2 outs above average in his limited playing time, per Baseball Savant. He also doesn’t have enough plate appearances to discern any platoon advantage, but his underlying batted ball data looks promising.
But even the most generous assessment of his game would conclude that he lacks versatility. And what’s undeniably true is that if the MLB teams were still operating with a 25-man roster, Ford would be starting the year in Scranton. There would simply be no space for a first base-only bench player. But in the world of a 26-man squad, players with limited versatility (Ford) or defensive skill (Martinez) will get more of a chance to make an impact.