Whether Randy Arozarena is a legitimate star is a big issue moving forward for the Rays.
You know who else that is true about?
Tampa Bay’s winning percentage has climbed in each of the last four seasons to .667 in the abbreviated 2020 campaign as they outdid the Yankees to win first the AL East and then a Division Series. That ascension has been built mainly on run prevention and — if anything — opportunistic, diverse offense. The Rays have allowed the fourth fewest runs over the past four seasons. They are 18th in average runs per game.
Even in this magical season they were third in ERA and 12th in runs scored. But what if Arozarena is legit? Tampa Bay already has a likely 2020 top-five MVP finisher in Brandon Lowe, albeit one who has struggled in these playoffs. And they have the consensus No. 1 prospect, shortstop Wander Franco, percolating near ready, albeit after a year in which all minor league progression was negated.
Lowe already was established and so was Franco as an elite prospect. Arozarena is the wild card. The Rays had long tried to obtain him because they saw the upside even before they ultimately landed him last winter, mainly for well-regarded pitching prospect Matthews Liberatore.
Arozarena, who had a Cardinals cup of coffee last year, contracted COVID-19 and did not play this season until Aug. 30. He was terrific in the last month and better in the playoffs. There are up late/postseason impact similarities to, say, Gregg Jefferies in 1988, Shane Spencer in 1998 and Timo Perez in 2000 (sorry Mets fans, Wednesday is the 20th anniversary of him not running hard initially in World Series Game 1 vs. the Yankees). None of those worked out in the long run how the New York teams hoped.
I saw similarities both facially and in the 5-foot-11 wiry, athletic builds between Arozarena and Andrew McCutchen and, unprompted, a scout who has seen the righty-swinging outfielder from the minors onward made the same comparison, writing to me: “It’s the same body type — an elite athlete in a medium, strong, compact frame with rare explosiveness. All aspects of his game jumped off the page. He had a rare power/speed combo, but with the bat speed and quick-twitch of a smaller/medium build player.
“I remember some guys were concerned about the usual ‘small guy trying to play a big man’s game,’ but he was extremely quick twitch, did not have the big holes in his swing that would have been needed to concern me. He was just raw, ultra-aggressive and needed time and patience.”
So imagine what a team brilliant at run prevention might look like with a version of McCutchen, who from 25-28 was the NL’s best player. Arozarena is 25. Lowe is 26. Franco is 19 (think a switch-hitting version of Fernando Tatis Jr., perhaps). Suddenly, the Rays are not just a cute story, but a team that can sustain winning for a while to the Yankees’ — and many other teams’ — chagrin. So who Arozarena is beyond this year is integral. Is his breakout performance this postseason (seven homers and a 1.288 OPS in 14 Rays games entering the World Series vs. the Dodgers) indicative of his true skill?
From an advanced scout who has covered Arozarena: “The tools seem too loud not to find a way to regularly contribute. There’s still questions about whether he can harness his ability and learn to play under control so I’m not anointing him as a perennial all-star yet. But the bat speed and ability to get to the best fastballs look real.”
From an assistant GM: “We have always liked his hard-hit and chase rates in the minors. I don’t think it is unreasonable to think he is a solid player, maybe not to the extent he is doing damage now, but still a good player. Considering he has only 1,300 minor league plate appearances, I still think he has some upside.”
The World Series features a managerial matchup of Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash, 42, and Los Angeles’ Dave Roberts, 48. Both were hired as part of the wave of younger managers with no previous experience (Roberts was a Padre interim for one game). Both have proven the organizational decisions wise.
But are we seeing some shift away from young and analytic? Dusty Baker, 71, just led Houston to ALCS Game 7, his steady, positive persona a counterbalance to all the negativity swirling around the Astros in the aftermath of the sign-stealing scandal.
Now, the White Sox are considering going back to the future with Tony La Russa, 76 and already a Hall of Famer. He managed the White Sox from 1979-86 and then/current White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has cited letting La Russa go as perhaps his greatest regret in the game. The White Sox, having made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, are a win-now team and, thus, a plum job.
Over the weekend, I heard another accomplished manager, three-time champ, Bruce Bochy also would be a White Sox consideration. But Bochy, 65, said by phone that there has been no contact with the White Sox initiated by them or him. Bochy had dealt with some health issues late in his Giants tenure and said, “I would like this COVID thing to go by and things are back to normal (before considering a return).”
But he added, “The postseason games make you miss it. If it is the right fit for both parties, I would listen and be open-minded.”
La Russa is the third winningest manager ever, Bochy 11th and Baker 15th. Baker admittedly came back, in part, to try to win a World Series and 2,000 games (he is at 1,982). A friend of Bochy said Bochy doesn’t like that he has a career losing record (2,003-2,029), but Bochy indicated he is content in retirement.
Playing it safe
The Yankees are one of three teams, joining the Braves and Cardinals, not holding a full Instructional League.
Brian Cashman described it as a “strategic decision” for the Yankees based mainly on seeing COVID-19 numbers “spiking everywhere again.” The Yankees GM said it was “not a safe financial bet” to bring in so many coaches and players, pay them, test them, house them and feed them with some not insignificant chance that the virus would force a shut down at some point. Cashman said the organization was informed by the outbreak it endured in spring training, which among other things kept people from returning home — especially to foreign countries — for an extended period.
Instead, some coaches and trainers were taken off of furlough and the Yankees are attempting to do remote instruction as much as possible. However, Cashman said without a clearer idea of when the major and minor league seasons would start next year, throwing programs have been halted so as not to have ramp up, shut down possibilities. He said there was a possibility of a Dominican Instructional League at some point.
Cashman acknowledged the lack of a minor league season in 2020 and offseason disruptions are going to be felt industry wise, adding, “I can’t even begin to measure how much of a setback that will be whenever things are back to normal.”
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