Insider: Should the Rays Extend Matt Joyce?

Following three seasons as a part-time major leaguer, Matt Joyce spent the entire 2011 season with the Tampa Bay Rays. Almost an everyday player, he hit .277/.347.476 in 522 plate appearances. There were peaks (May) and valleys (June) along the way, but that type of overall production is a pretty good indication of what to expect going forward. Joyce was rewarded with a selection to the All-Star game mid-season, and will enter 2012 as a middle-of-the-order bat for the Rays.

Because of the up-and-down nature of his first three seasons, Joyce will barely miss the service time cutoff for super-2 arbitration status. Instead of an extra year of arbitration eligibility – and millions of dollars – he will receive a 2012 salary determined by the team before his three abitration-eligible years begin.

Not long ago, Ben Zobrist was in a similar situation. Zobrist bounced around the Rays’ organzation in parts of three seasons before getting a shot to play regularly in 2009. It was that season in which Zobrist transformed into Zorilla, earning an All-Star appearance and American League Most Valuable Player consideration.

Despite playing in parts of four big-league seasons, Zobrist had not accumulated enough service time to become arbitration eligible following the 2009 campaign. Instead, he had one year of team control left before arbitration kicked in. This is the exact scenario for Joyce.

Zobrist was given a contract for the 2010 season worth around $440k. As unfair as it may seem, this is the system used by Major League Baseball. The Rays could have paid his modest salary and waited for arbitration to roll around, however, they decided to invest in Zobrist with long-term extension. In early 2010, the Rays signed him to a four-year deal worth $18 million guaranteed. The deal included two club options – Zobrist’s first two years of free agency – giving it a max potential of six years and $30 million.

Like any extension, there was risk on both sides. Had 2009 been a fluke, the team would likely be shelling out more cash to Zobrist than he would have made through arbitration. For Zobrist, another big season could have meant huge pay days going year-to-year. Zobrist – particularly because of injuries – had a down season in 2010 before rebounding to above-average levels in 2011. As of right now, the deal looks like a win for both sides.

As Joyce sits in a similar position to Zobrist did after 2009, it may be time for he and the team to take a long-term look at their relationship.

For the Rays, this is an opportunity to lock up a key player at a fixed rate.  In exchange for cost certainty and a year or two of Joyce’s free agency, the team can offer financial security for him as his family. Joyce profiles to be an above-average offensive player with at least average abilities as a defender and on the bases, making him an attractive option for extension. The risk is Joyce will never develop into a full-time player – as he struggles with left-handed pitching – and the team will guarantee millions of dollars to a piece of a platoon. Still, Joyce is on the strong side of the platoon split, and there is a fair chance he becomes at least passable versus lefties. The odds he busts completely against both sides of the plate are minimal.

For Joyce, locking up a lifetime of financial security for he and his family should be attractive. He also has the unique opportunity to remain in the area he has called home for most of his life. There is a decent chance he outperforms the first few years of any extension; however, there is also a chance that this opportunity never presents itself again.

Though unlikely, the potential for ineffectiveness or injury still exists. While Evan Longoria serves a prime example of a player who left future money on the table for immediate security, Rocco Baldelli serves as another prime example of how the unexpected can derail what looks like a promising career. Luckily, Baldelli did not chase future millions and signed an extension early in his career. In doing so, he secured his future beyond his short career on the field.

Because of the similarities in their situations, the Zobrist contract (4yrs/$18 million with two club options) may be a blueprint for a Matt Joyce extension. The main point being, Joyce might have to concede potential future earnings in order for the security of guaranteed millions in the present. The club will provide those guaranteed millions up front, but in exchange, would likely want the option(s) to keep him past his arbitration eligibility at a known cost. As always, the team and its’ players make moves in silence; however, in this case, an amicable deal for both sides would not be a surprise.