The Benefit of the Doubt

When I read that the Tampa Bay Rays were talking to Luke Scott, my first reaction was “naturally.” Indeed, a Scott-Rays union had seemed like a good fit since before the 2011 season. The Rays have been rather quietly going about their off-season business as usual — not making any desperation signings and trades, but making small moves that simply make sense as they continue to stay in contention in the toughest division in baseball despite relatively minuscule financial resources.

Not all of their moves make sense on the surface (at least to me), though — Fernando Rodney leaps to mind. However, unlike when many other teams make moves like this, I tend to give the Rays the benefit of the doubt. The reasons why are worth a brief review as a way get a bit more in-depth on what it means to give a team the “benefit of the doubt.”

Let’s quickly go through three of the Rays’ off-season transactions in reverse order of the “benefit of the doubt” they require, beginning with Scott (and leaving aside his thoughts on politics — if, like me, you consider it from a comic standpoint, it is actually a bonus. Thank goodness we have brilliant movie stars and musicians to counter-balance those silly athletes!).

This one is pretty obvious: the Rays needed a DH, and Johnny Damon did not cut if for them in 2011, and had the added bonus of being really old. (You’ll never guess who would rather have Damon — I wonder why?) Scott himself hit even worse in 2011, but 236 plate appearances is a very small sample, and Scott’s season ended with injury. That injury is still a concern (the deal is pending a physical, of course), but Scott had always hit well prior to 2010, when he really went off. His true talent level is probably more like his 2010 season line, and poor performance in his shortened 2011 seem mostly to be due to a low BABIP and a decrease in power — the basic plate discipline was still there.

That is not to say there is not risk there for the Rays (although one year, $6 million guaranteed is probably a bit less than what Scott’s true talent projects to be worth in 2012). Scott will be 34 in June and is coming off a season-ending injury. But the Rays have a limited budget, still probably need to sign a first basemen, and, most importantly, are trying to return to the playoffs. It is worth the (relatively small) risk to take on Scott for a one-year chance, especially since they have a full outfield and just need him to DH.

Anyway, Scott’s case is rather obvious for the Rays, but what is up with Jose Molina? I mean, teams need backup catchers, right, but why give the former Blue Jay and Angel more than the minimum? He’s a bad hitter (despite his BABIP-fueled 2011), old, and while he’s decent at blocking pitches and controlling the running game, he’s showen nothing special in recent seasons. Well, it just so happens that just before Jose Molina was signed by the Rays, Mike Fast published his extremely important study of pitch framing, and easily the best of the last few seasons was… you guessed it, our man Jose Molina.

It was not just five runs a year or something like that. Whether the Rays were inspired by Fast’s work or whether they had done similar work themselves (former pitch f/x internet nerd and physics professor Josh Kalk has been working for the Rays for a few years now), I am guessing pitch-framing had something to do with it. So, like the Scott deal, once you take that all into account, $1.5 million for Jose Molina seems pretty easy to understand with having to give the Rays the “benefit of the doubt.”

But what about that Fernando Rodney signing? Honestly, I have no idea. I’m not a scout (and I’m guessing you aren’t, either), and scouting reports are, of course, essential to any player evaluation. That said, just looking at the numbers, I do not see what the Rays see in him. Sure, it’s just a small one-year deal, but what attracted the Rays to Rodney?

He has not had a seasonal FIP under four since 2007, which is pretty bad for a reliever. It is not as if he has shown the skill to outperform his FIP, either. So then I looked to see if he might have a big split, which can make a reliever useful (and Joe Maddon pays attention to that sort of thing). Nope, he is not that great against righties. Perhaps all those change-ups mean he is a reverse split guy? Well… No. This is a case where not having a big platoon split makes a guy less valuable.

Yet, if you are going to give one team the “benefit of the doubt,” it would be the Rays. That is not to say that I think Rodney is a good reliever just because the Rays signed him. I do not. However, I am curious to see what happens. And that is because, as we say, the Rays have “earned” the benefit of the doubt. Over the last few years, they have had a clunker or two, e.g., Pat Burrell, but they have mostly made the right moves, which is why they have gone to the playoffs three of the last four seasons despite playing in the toughest division in baseball.

Beyond their impressive results, one can (despite the team’s notorious secrecy about its methods) understand the process behind what they are doing. They sometimes keep prospects down so long they get mocked for it — but a team like the Rays has to watch it — and Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore still managed to contribute significantly to their marvelous 2011 run. And when things do go wrong, they have set things up so that it does not kill them.

No, Pat Burrell did not work out. It seemed like a fair deal at the time, but it failed. Rather than trying to get blood from a stone, the recognized the sunk cost and let him go (and he then got hot in San Francisco on their own trip to the World Series, but that is a story for another time). Many teams would have refused to do that. In 2011, with Grant Balfour and Rafael Soriano gone, they cobbled a bullpen together out of the likes of Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta… that will never work! Oh, wait.

Have the Rays had some good luck? Yes, of course, every team has good and bad luck. I am not as strident as I have been in the past about declaring front offices “good” and “bad.” The Rays have consistently put themselves in a situations to minimize the damage that can be done by bad luck while maximizing the rewards of good luck. If Tampa Bay had just one or two signings surprise everyone for one year, that might be just luck without design.

I read somewhere that Dayton Moore should get the benefit of the doubt after what Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera did in 2011. I have been hard on Moore in the past, but he deserves credit for how those things worked out. But that is two signings compared to a number of disastrous ones (that were seen as such at the time by, well, almost everyone outside the offices at Kauffman Stadium) over the previous three or four seasons. As I said above, I am trying to be less strident on these matters, but one the “benefit of the doubt scale,” the Royals’ front office is much further down that the Rays. Perhaps future events will force me to revise my opinion on this, but at the moment I would say there is more, um, “residue” than design to be found in the Royals’ success with Cabrera and Francoeur in 2011.

The point is not to pick on the people running my beloved Royals, who, despite their foibles, have put the team in the best position it has been in for a long time. The point is to make a (admittedly vague) distinction between teams that have had certain transactions turn out well and teams that seem to have a systematic knack for making it happen. When claiming that the Rays have “earned the benefit of the doubt,” I am not giving them some lofty, unique status. There are smart people in all front offices. To express it through a trivial microcosm: while I do not see how Fernando Rodney is going to help them much in 2012, I am more curious to see what the Rays can get out of him than I would have been if some other team (the Orioles? Sorry…) had signed him. That is giving them the benefit of the doubt.