LAS VEGAS — The Rays are still looking to sign a big-name free agent as their DH. Late Wednesday, they got a young player with a big bat who could end up as their primary rightfielder, acquiring Matt Joyce from Detroit for 14-game winner Edwin Jackson.
Joyce, 24, hit .252 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs in 92 games during two stints with the Tigers as a rookie in 2008, making a smashing debut with 10 homers in his first 36 big-league games.
“We feel like Matt Joyce can be a very good player for us,” Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. “We think he’s an above average defensive rightfielder with plus power. We like what he brings to our club and like the years of control that we have (through 2014). We feel like he’ll help us for many years to come.”
After assessing the market, the Rays seemed more likely to sign a free agent DH than a rightfielder, with Jason Giambi and Milton Bradley appearing to be the top candidates.
They remain hopeful of doing so, though Friedman said getting Joyce “adds to our depth in the event that the market plays out in a way where we don’t end up with one of the guys we’d like to. We’re fortunate then to have Matt Joyce.”
If not at the start of the season, Joyce eventually projects to be the frontline rightfielder. Gabe Gross could still be in the opening day lineup, with Fernando Perez another possibility, as Joyce has minor-league options remaining.
“We always have to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future,” Friedman said. “While we expect this trade will impact us in 2009, we think it will also pay dividends down the road. And we have to remain mindful of those (future) years to remain competitive in the American League East.”
The Rays made the deal from strength, as they were deep in starting pitching. Jackson was 14-11 with a 4.42 ERA in what was a breakthrough season, having gone 11-19, 5.64 previously. The question is whether the Rays traded him when his value was highest, or when he was on the verge of continued success.
Friedman insisted the Rays were not looking to trade a starter, but it became “abundantly clear” they would have to in order to make a deal.
“Edwin Jackson was a big part of our turnaround,” he said. “It wasn’t something we were out necessarily seeking to do. But you have to give up talent to get talent.”
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said Jackson, 25, will be in their rotation and acknowledged that it was “kind of unusual” to be able to trade for a 14-game winner.
“We got a pitcher we think will help us,” Dombrowski said. “He’s got great stuff. Everybody in baseball has known his ability and potential for years. It looks like he took a step forward last year, and hopefully he’ll continue to take a step forward for us.”
Trading Jackson saves the Rays about $2 million, as he is eligible for arbitration for the first time. The move also opens a spot in the rotation for rookie sensation David Price, though Friedman said that was not automatic and that Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot would also have a chance to compete for the vacancy.
Jackson said he had heard enough rumors that he was not surprised to be dealt.
“I’m not disappointed in any way,” he said by phone. “I’ve been traded before, so I know how to handle being traded. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to leave Tampa, I was comfortable there. You have to understand it’s a business. So I just look at it that I’m going to another team, and I’ll go over there and give it all I have.”
Joyce is currently playing for Aguilas in the Mexican League, hitting .291 with eight homers and 25 RBIs in 30 games.
The trade came together Wednesday after Friedman and Dombrowski had spoken several times about other potential possibilities, including multiteam deals that would have netted the Tigers a closer.
“I guess we finally simplified it and went one-on-one,” Dombrowski said.