AL EastAnalysis

Moving on From Wander

The Franco investigation and situation have hung a looming question mark over the Rays’ offseason plans which they could address in a number of ways.

Let’s put it plain and simple: Wander Franco will most likely never be a Ray again. It’s tragic to see how this burgeoning star somehow threw away the opportunity of a lifetime, but what’s done is done, and the Rays must now formulate a plan for what the post-Franco years will look like. Luckily, Tampa Bay plans for everything. While lots of other teams focus on amassing top-tier talent, the Rays are the sort of team that has an affinity for quantity over quality. The fact that the Rays “lucked” into a five-tool star like Wander Franco was a happy accident in their rebuilding plan that probably would’ve seen Willy Adames man short for the future if it wasn’t for the wonder kid with an 80-grade hit tool. The supercomputer that is the Rays’ brain trust prepares for countless different ways in which a season can derail, accounting for injuries as the most plausible reason for solid depth but also because of incredibly weird incidents like Franco’s. So, instead of hinging plans on Franco’s possible return, the Rays must begin charting a course without the once-coveted prospect.

Option #1: Taylor Walls

Alright, alright, so it’s not a six-WAR superstar shortstop with elite tools everywhere, but little ol’ Taylor Walls is like a solidly compact and trustworthy Swiss Army knife that I’d want with me at all times. In all honesty, he’s the Rays’ secret weapon that keeps the roster facilitating all season long because of his status as an elite backup on the infield for any man who needs the day off. In the same way that Matt Chapman will make flashy plays with the glove and then have a stretch of hitting that makes you want to rip your eyeballs out, Walls gives the Rays that at a fraction of the cost.

The main factor that makes Walls so appealing is his glove. This past season, Walls was nominated for the Gold Glove at the utility position as he accumulated two bWAR in 99 games. He evenly split time at shortstop, second base, and third base, manning each one with smooth hands and pristine defensive efficiency. A bit of a confounding aspect of Walls’s game that is scrutinized is the discrepancy between how UZR (ultimate zone rating) and DRS (defensive runs saved) measure his defensive output. While bWAR (which uses DRS) thinks his range is definitely above average, UZR believes his glove is not nearly impactful enough to make up for his awful hitting.

By sticking completely to numbers, Walls’ value becomes a bit of an enigma, but by combining fielding statistics with simply watching Walls make plays, it is clear to see he shows no fear in handling ground balls anywhere he’s put. He possesses extremely quick footwork, which he uses in conjunction with an innate ability to always know the speed of a runner and how much time he has to get the ball out of his glove. This play he fields on a grounder from Aaron Hicks (in 2022) at second shows all these qualities in one clip.

The question on everybody’s mind when it comes to Walls, though, is if he can shoulder the workload of a starting shortstop. He’s shown he can handle covering a starter’s position for an extended stretch, but the thought of giving him the 450+ at-bats that need to go along with that makes any fan of exciting offensive baseball cringe. To put it plainly, Walls would most likely be hitting at a Double-A level in the majors for a full season, which would see a far below hitter taking at-bats from potentially exciting infield prospects. Walls is by no means the sexy option for the roster, which makes him unpopular, but the draw with him is the comfort he gives Kevin Cash and the teambuilders of the Rays with his cushy floor as an elite defender, which would provide some value rather than potentially none.

Option #2: Junior Caminero & the Durham Depth

If you’re a fan of high upside and letting the kids play, then this is the option for you! Everything that Taylor Walls lacks, Junior Caminero has the potential to do better. Stress must really be put on the word potential, though, because Caminero is just 20 years old, and if Rays fans are used to the production that Franco put up at the same age, then they should think differently.

Caminero had one of the most meteoric rises through a minor league system of any prospect in recent memory. After giving us a trailer of what was to come with a powerful 62-game showing in 2021, Caminero made his presence known with an absolute scorching of Single-A and Double-A, putting up 31 home runs and a .975 OPS. His defensive acumen is tricky to make a rock-solid scouting grade on as he’s moved around much like Taylor Walls at third base, shortstop, and second base but without the grace. His strong suit is the hot corner, where he’s seen most of his time playing because of his above-average arm.

What the Rays will most likely end up doing with Caminero’s defensive positioning is seeing where his glove will fit according to his bat. If Caminero proves to be a mainstay in the lineup within the first couple of months, then he will simply need a spot in the lineup according to wherever he’s most comfortable. That could mean possibly moving Brandon Lowe off the roster or sacrificing at-bats from Isaac Paredes, but the Rays’ flexible infield maneuverability allows for this type of shifting. 

Now, there are other ways that the rest of the shortstop depth can be used to find production at the position. One option that’s possible is sticking with some of the shortstops that starred in 2023 for the Rays minor league systems, mainly Double-A and Triple-A. Some of the names are familiar as they’ve already made guest appearances on the roster for a stretch, but Oslevis Basabe, Greg Jones, and possibly Curtis Mead are all names that could provide quality backup services to Walls over the course of a season. Basabe and Jones are useful in the sense that they can play positions besides shortstop and, therefore, fill the utility role that Walls would leave behind by starting each day. They’re glove-first hitters who would excel in a bench role, but the idea of a Walls-filled shortstop position with Basabe and Jones getting the backup reps leaves something to be desired for a team trying to consistently win the AL East. This is where Option #3 comes in.

Option #3: Explore the Trade Market

The next option is to see how the strength of the shortstop trade market can be used in the Rays’ favor. The Rays certainly have depth to deal from and though they’re often unwilling to part with it, the need for an above-average starter at the position could force their hands. 

One of the first options that comes to mind, and also an intriguing reunion, would be Willy Adames. Having only one year left before he hits free agency, Adames would not be terribly expensive of an asking price and also gives the Rays a comfortable and familiar stopgap until top guys like Caminero and Williams are ready. It would be an interesting final twist in the Rays’ shortstop saga, initially starting with Adames, trading him to make way for Franco, and finally trading back for him to replace Wander.

Now, with Milwaukee trending in the wrong direction talent-wise and looking like they might not be nearly as competitive going into 2024, Adames is a very attainable target for Tampa Bay to go after. The greatest concern with Adames would be his previous troubles at Tropicana Field that plagued him during his Rays days. He posted just a 63 OPS+ over 644 career at-bats in St. Pete. Lots of players have discussed vision issues while playing in the bright lights and dome of the Trop, and if that’s still an issue, the team should turn their focus to another shortstop.

Another potential temporary candidate with only one year remaining on his contract is longtime Twin Jorge Polanco. If the Rays were to go out and get the All-Star infielder, I picture his playing time being split between Walls and Brandon Lowe, being the better offensive option to pair with the defense-first Walls. His $10.5 million base salary might be a bit risky for the Rays to splurge on, and with the trade rumors swirling around Tampa’s pricier players like Tyler Glasnow and Manuel Margot, the Rays would most likely lean in a cheaper direction.

Option #4: Tim Anderson

Many teams will look to take a chance on Anderson this offseason, and it’s obvious to see why. If you disregard 2023 as a whole for Anderson, he’s a 30-year-old two-time All-Star with a batting title and close to 20 WAR over his career. That’s a potentially high-value player hitting the free agent market at the worst time for him, but the best time for teams looking to get the most value from him. Yes, his 2023 season was as abysmal as it gets for a player. Going from a franchise star to being KO’d in an actual fistfight, hitting just one homer over a full season, and putting up minus-two WAR is a shock to see, but not exactly a rare one.

Just a year ago, the entire baseball world was wondering if Cody Bellinger was going to have a spot on a big league roster after reaching the lowest of lows in LA. But after a one-year prove-it deal with the Cubs, Bellinger’s star is back to shining bright, and he’ll look to be cashing in on a six-plus year deal this winter. He’s the perfect example of what can happen with one-year prove-it deals, some of the most appealing to teams looking to get a star at a bargain price. 

For Tampa Bay and Anderson, both parties would favor from a one-year deal. Tampa Bay figures out its stopgap situation, needing to see more development from their young shortstops before they’re ready, all while playing a potential All-Star for a year. Anderson, meanwhile, can set himself up to put his name back on the map with a solid performance on a team with playoff aspirations, putting him in the best position to win, unlike in the South Side.

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