Tampa Bay Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman is always looking for the opportunity to upgrade. Last week, he saw an opportunity to upgrade the major -league bench by claiming Brandon Allen’s left-handed, power bat off waivers. Just days after the Allen acquisition, reports say the Rays are close to signing designated hitter Hideki Matsui on a minor-league contract.
Matsui will most likely work his way into playing shape in Port Charlotte before reporting to Durham, where he will provide major-league ready insurance in case of injury. Much like Allen, the Rays are taking little risk here. There is a fair chance that the 37-year-old has nothing left in the tank, but at the cost of a minor league deal there is no harm in finding out.
After spending seven productive years with the New York Yankees (.292/.370/.482), Matsui spent the last two seasons in the American League West. He was a member of the Los Angeles Angels in 2011 before joining the Oakland Athletics last season. Despite his advanced age, he appeared in 286 games over the last two years, hitting .262/.340/.715.
In 2011, Matsui got off to a slow start in Oakland. In the first half of the season (302 plate appearance), he hit .209/.290/.327. Meanwhile, he hit .295/.353/.425 over his final 283 PA. His power production went down considerably as a member of the A’s; however, his .143 ISO away from the Oakland Coliseum shows there was still a little pop left in his bat. His overall production last season was about equal to Raul Ibanez, who received a guaranteed seven figures to DH for New York this season.
Although Matsui bats from the left side, he is nearly platoon neutral. For his career, he is a .285 hitter against both hands and shows similar power regardless of who is on the mound. His strikeout-to-walk rate is better against right-handed pitchers, but is more than acceptable against southpaws. In fact, he showed reverse splits last season (.795 OPS vs. LH, .654 OPS vs. RH). He is also unique in the fact that he produces above-average contract rates while keeping his swings and misses to a minimum; two traits rarely seen in the modern DH.
While the Rays do not have a pressing need for Allen or Matsui to contribute right way, the organization was in need of major-league ready depth. Following Sam Fuld’s injury, Tampa Bay was left with career minor-leaguers Jeff Salazar and Stephen Vogt as left-handed options for the bench. The team was able to get by for with Vogt on the roster until B.J. Upton returned, but the potential of turning to Vogt, Salazar, Juan Miranda, or Matt Mangini in case of a significant injury to Luke Scott or Carlos Pena created a suboptimal scenario.
Computer projections provided by Dan Szymborski peg Matsui for a .253/.326/.396 line in 2012. The same system has Vogt at .241/.278/.363, Miranda at .223/.305/.369, Mangini at .249/.293/.351. For those wondering, Allen compares close to Miranda which makes sense given their similar offensive profile. Neither the youthful Allen nor the aging Matsui are slam dunks to be productive if they are needed in a larger role; however, for minimal cost, they add some much needed waves to previously shallow talent pool.