The Rays are apparently on the verge of adding to their offensive depth with another veteran bat. Jack Curry of YES Network reported that the Rays are expected to sign former star slugger and World Series MVP Hideki Matsui to a minor league contract.
Matsui, who played his first season without the New York Yankees in 2011, hit .251/.321/.375 with 12 home runs and 72 RBI for Oakland through 141 games played. Matsui, who turns 38 this June, is obviously out of his prime and his numbers are clearly not where they used to be. However, he did finish the season strong last year hitting .295/.353/.425 in the second half.
Bringing Matsui aboard was definitely a smart move for the Rays, who could use another quality bat on the roster. He’s proven to be a very productive hitter throughout his nine solid years in the big leagues, posting a career line of .285/.363/.467 with a total of 173 homers. His 162-game average of 101 RBI and 23 HR per year is what’s most impressive amongst his overall numbers.
Once Matsui will join the Rays, the question is how he will fit on the roster. Designated Hitter is his primary position now, but he can also play left field. When Matsui gets called up (which will most likely send the newly-acquired Brandon Allen to the minors), there obviously won’t be a immediate starting position for him. The Rays have a solid DH in Luke Scott–who’s also a left-handed batter—and have outfield with no room for him.
What the Rays can do with Matsui though, is platoon, something they’ve fell in love with since Joe Maddon has taken over. The Rays have not yet found an effective hitter to platoon the left-handed bats of Matt Joyce and Luke Scott yet this season—who have never been successful off left-handed pitching—but they may of just found their guy in Hideki Matsui. Although Matsui is also a lefty, he has been much more effective off left-handed pitching throughout his career. His ability to hit decently off lefties is a probably a big reason why the Rays signed him and not Johnny Damon.
His average against both righties and lefties in his career are exactly the same at .285; although he produces a lot more runs against right-handers. Still, it’s probably a better option than Joyce (.199/.274/.329 career against LHP) and Scott (.236/.313/.465 career against LHP). That’s why we can expect to see Matsui get a significant amount of playing time against left-handed pitching this season, as he is probably a better option than the Rays’ DH and corner outfielder (Joyce), who both man positions that he can play. If the Rays decide not to start either Joyce or Scott due to the pitching matchup one day, Matsui and Jeff Keppinger could possibly be the duo to replace them.
No matter how many lefties face the Rays this season, Matsui is probably going to see a pretty good amount of pinch hit appearances. Fortunately, he has had success as a pinch hitter in the past, posting a career .300 average in 50 plate appearances.
Another encouraging split I found interesting from Matsui’s stats is how well he’s hit at Tropicana Field over the years. He’s a career .297/.385/.505 hitter at the Trop, with 43 RBI and 10 homers. In a more hitter-friendly park that Matsui seems to thrive in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his numbers rise from last year’s.
Another reason why this move makes a lot of sense is Matsui’s ability to be consistent with runners in scoring position. Matsui is a career .298/.382/.477 hitter with the runners in scoring position, something that the Rays should be excited about. Tampa’s biggest weakness is hitting with men in scoring position, finishing third-worst in baseball last year with a .224 RISP. If Matsui can come through for the Rays in big situations like he’s done in the past, their offense could become more potent than ever.
His ability to get runners in is not the only reason why Matsui is known as a clutch hitter. Year after year, he’s been able to turn it on late in the season and into the postseason. He’s a lifetime .289/.378/.454 hitter in September/October (regular season). His postseason stats have been even more impressive, posting a career line of .312/.391/.541 with 39 RBI and 10 HR in 56 games. In the Fall Classic, the “Godzilla” unleashed in his two World Series. He’s compiled a .389/.463/.750 line with 12 RBI and four HR.
With the likelihood of the Rays making their third straight postseason appearance in 2012, Matsui could be a crucial part to their success in October. A clutch hitter like Matsui is a perfect addition to this ballclub, which has lacked some clutch hits in the last couple of years.
The biggest reason why Andrew Friedman went out and made this move may be the fact that Matsui is a good Luke Scott insurance policy. Although a major Scott injury would hurt the team, it would not as big as a blow as it would if Brandon Allen were to replace him. Scott has struggled with injury issues in the past, and hasn’t played over 135 games in a season since 2008 when he played 148 games (the only time he played over 135 games in his career). He was hurt most of the season last year with a shoulder injury, and has already missed a few games this year with a hamstring strain. Turning 34 this June, his chances of a an injury-free season are not getting better.
With the addition of Matsui, the Rays are given offensive security probably better than they’ve ever had. It’s clear that this is another very intelligent move by the Rays front office, and can only make them an even better team.