I’ll be up front: this 40-in-40 was supposed to be about José Caballero. An unheralded minor leaguer coming out of nowhere, stabilizing the black hole of second base with stellar defense and baserunning, and near-immediately endearing himself to the fanbase? With a killer nickname to boot? Writing his first-ever appearance in this long-running series was going to be a treat.
Alas, Jerry Dipoto had other plans. Mere minutes after acquiring Anthony DeSclafani and Mitch Haniger from the Giants for Robbie Ray on January 5th, Death Cabby was shipped off to Tampa Bay a straight swap for outfielder/first baseman Luke Raley. Trader Jerry and the Rays: name a more iconic duo. Although it’s certainly sad to see Caballero go, I’m looking forward to seeing him drive opposing AL East fans up the wall with his pitch clock manipulation and fearless demeanor - and with the shortstop job in Tampa up for grabs, he could see some regular playing time.
All of that being said, however, you’d be mistaken to consider Raley a slouch of a return. After being drafted in 2016 in the seventh round out of Lake Erie College by the Dodgers, Raley found himself traded twice before first cracking the big leagues in 2021 despite solid hitting marks all through the minors: first to the Twins in 2018 in the Brian Dozier deadline deal, and then back to the Dodgers in February 2020 in the Brusdar Graterol swap. While he only made the taxi squad (man, remember that?) out of camp, an early injury to Cody Bellinger led to him making his debut on April 9th, and a week later, he was a key player in an extra-inning win over the Dodgers - also notching his first big league homer.
Unfortunately, Raley spent most of 2021 riding the AAA-MLB shuttle (optioned and recalled seven times!), never getting into a groove at the plate with an unsightly 47 wRC+ and 12.5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 72 big league plate appearances. A roster crunch next spring led the Dodgers to move him to the Rays for righty reliever Tanner Dodson, but it was the same story in Tampa. He didn’t crack the Opening Day roster, was optioned and recalled three times, missed some time with injury at Triple-A Durham, and scuffled to a 79 wRC+ over an identical 72 big league plate appearances. Hey, it was an improvement, but the newly out-of-options Raley needed to break out in a big way to stave off the Quad-A label.
On the heels of a strong spring, he cracked an Opening Day roster for the first time in 2023, and burst onto the scene in April, mashing seven homers en route to a slugging percentage north of .600 and a 146 wRC+. He kept the good times rolling all through the first half, and although he scuffled a bit down the stretch and had his season ended a bit prematurely thanks to a collision during batting practice in mid-September, he finished 2023 at a 130 wRC+ and 2.6 fWAR over 409 plate appearances. Quite the turn from the last two seasons!
In case it wasn’t clear, Luke Raley can put a charge into the ball. Marvel at the homer reel below:
The first two were from the same game, a 6-2 victory over the Nationals on April 3rd, but pay closer attention to the second one:
A 95 MPH fastball right on the outer black, casually flipped the other way for a homer? There’s power, and then there’s power to all fields. Luke Raley clearly belongs in the latter club. Don’t let his 6’4”, 235-pound frame fool you, either: he’s an asset on the basepaths. Swiping fourteen bases - including a perfect 7-for-7 in May - while getting caught just three times is a solid mark for anyone, let alone a guy who at first glance you might designate as more of an “outfielder”. FanGraph’s BsR may be an imperfect metric to gauge baserunning, but Raley’s 3.8 mark would have been third-best on the Mariners last year, behind Julio Rodríguez and Caballero. Add in acceptable defensive marks in the corner outfield spots and the ability to fill in at center on occasion, and you have a slugger that is - gasp! - well-rounded in areas besides the plate.
Of course, every rose has its thorns. Raley was heavily platooned by the Rays last year, notching just 43 plate appearances against lefty pitchers. While he held his own in that small sample, and platoon splits notoriously take their sweet time to show themselves, it certainly remains a question whether he can produce enough against same-handed pitching to be a true everyday player. There are plenty of in-house options to complement him such as Mitch Haniger, Dylan Moore, or Sam Haggerty, but Dominic Canzone will also likely need a platoon partner, and the bench could get stretched a bit thin if both him and Raley need a breather against a tough lefty.
Despite excellent batted ball metrics, he’s also a bit antithetical to the stated goal of cutting down on whiffs, putting up a strikeout rate north of 30% while running a below-average 6.9% walk rate last year.
That .437 xSLG is still solid, too, but keep in mind that that’s a 53-point drop off from the actual mark of .490 he posted. Regression could be in the air, especially moving from the climate-controlled Tropicana Field to the marine layer at T-Mobile Park. With that strong barrel rate and propensity to pull the ball as a lefty swinger, however, Raley could be a good candidate to stave off a step back.
Luke Raley may not be a perfect baseball player. Slated as Seattle’s probable Opening Day left fielder, he may not be a true everyday hitter. He’ll likely go through some stretches where the strikeouts pile up, with a decided lack of controlling the zone. And all of that is okay! Even when he’s not hitting much, his baserunning acumen and solid-if-unspectacular outfield defense should keep him afloat as a big league contributor, and he can even spell Ty France at first base if Ty guy misses time due to injury or ineffectiveness. If he can also bring some of the wacky energy from his inside-the-parker in San Francisco, or from striking out Vlad Jr.? We’ve got something cookin’.