Insider: Rays Trade John Jaso for Josh Lueke

Continuing their overhaul of the catcher position, the Tampa Bay Rays traded one-time starter John Jaso to the Seattle Mariners for relief pitcher Josh Lueke and cash considerations or a player to be named later. Since the end of the season, the team has declined the option on Jaso’s platoon partner Kelly Shoppach and – now officially – signed veteran Jose Molina. Jaso, 28, was a 2010 surprise, hitting .263/.372/.378 as a rookie. With limited defensive abilities and average power, his greatest asset is working his way on base via walks and quality at-bats. In 2011, his slash line dropped to .244/.298/.354. The biggest change was a decline in walk rate from 14.6% in 2010 to 9.2% last season.

Jaso’s true talent level is likely somewhere in between his two seasons; however, it is clear the Rays did not view him as a long-term solution at catcher. With that in mind, they traded him at a point where they felt he had value instead of holding on to him and diminishing any chance of a decent return. For Seattle, Jaso provides potential on a team that is largely void of offensive production at several positions. Meanwhile, his subpar defense almost neutralizes any gain on offense.

The signing of Molina and the trade of Jaso seems to put the focus on defense behind the plate rather than offense at it. As it stands, Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos are left as the two who will likely to fight for playing time opposite of Molina. Both players spent time with the club last season and bring different skill-sets to the table. Lobaton is a switch-hitter who is light on the offensive side, but has a stellar defensive reputation. Chirinos, a converted infielder, has higher upside at the plate, but is a work in progress on defense. The Rays will likely explore other opportunities via trade and free agency; however, could go into spring training with the current group in place.

In return for Jaso, Tampa Bay received the talented, but controversial Josh Lueke. The right-hander has the ideal frame (6’5, 220 pounds) and big fastball of a potential late-inning reliever; however, carries baggage with him following a 2008 arrest and subsequent stay in jail on a charge of false imprisonment with violence. If you want further details on the incident a google search of name will give you all the information you need. The move may seem odd for an organization that prides itself on high character individuals, but the Rays say they are confident he has moved passed his issues and are comfortable with his addition to the clubhouse.

When it comes to things related to baseball, Lueke possesses many attributes that are attractive to the Rays. As mentioned, his measurables and stuff are conducive to the workload that comes with being a potential high-leverage reliever. His fastball lives in the 93-96 mph range with good secondary pitches that have the ability to miss bats.

Overall, Lueke went 1-1 with a 6.06 ERA in 25 games, but was much better after a late July recall. In his final 17 appearances, he allowed 10 earned runs in 26.1 innings while striking out 26 and walking just seven. “Josh has the stuff to get hitters out in the American League East and began to show that during the second half of the season,” said Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman.

Although the sample size is limited, Lueke made a small yet effective change in pitch selection in the second half that Friedman mentioned. In the early portion of the season, he relied heavily on his fastball (around 70%). After the call up, dropped the usage slightly on the heater (around 60%) with more emphasis on his other pitches. Fastball aside, he throws a breaking ball and an off-speed pitch in the low 80’s with a good feel for how to use them. His split-fingered pitch is used more against left-handers to thwart the platoon split while traditionally throwing his curveball against fellow righties. In both instances, he gets swing and misses at above-average rates.

When speaking of Lueke’s potential with the organization Friedman said “we believe he can be an important part of our success here for many years.” With that in mind, Lueke reprents the latest instance of a young, talented, and controllable arm brought in by the organization for not only the bullpen of the present, but future as well. The 26-year-old joins Jake McGee, Dane De La Rosa, and Brandon Gomes as young arms with major-league experience and years of team control. They may be joined by Matt Bush and others in 2012.

Off-field issues aside, the Lueke/Jaso swap appears to be a good trade of assets on both sides. The Mariners get a potential strong side platoon player in exchange for a reliever with upside. For Tampa Bay, they get a useful, controllable piece back for a player who held little value within the organization.