Ryan Raburn signed a two-year, $4.85 million contract extension with a club option for 2016, the Indians announced on Wednesday.
Although Joe would disagree with me, this was an extension that needed to get done before Raburn tested the free agent waters this offseason. In a season of 162+ games, having productive offensive players low in the depth chart is one of the characteristics of having a deep team. Ryan Raburn will fit that role for the next few seasons.
For many years with the Tigers, Raburn would be named a starting outfielder at the beginning of the season, struggle at the plate, get sent down or benched for a another player who was well below replacement level. Raburn would then get another chance and go on a hot streak. Part of his problem was that he was not a good defender anywhere.
Raburn did have flashes with the bat, though. He put up a .291/.359/.533 (129 wRC+) line in 2009, including 16 home runs in just 291 plate appearances. He got off to a rough start in 2010, but finished the year strong, with an overall .280/.340/.474 (120 wRC+) performance over 418 plate appearance.
At that point, Raburn was eligible for arbitration, but was also going into his age-30 season, and the Tigers bought out a couple of years of his contract for league average money. Raburn’s offense suffered, though. His 93 wRC+ in 2011 was not bad for part-time bench player, but the problem was that that only place he could play acceptable defense was on the outfield corners, despite the Tiger's internal scouting reports. Things really went downhill for Raburn in 2012. In prior seasons, his decent power had made up for his bad plate discipline, but in 2012 his power disappeared, and combined with his BABIP streaking down, he managed 28 wRC+ (.171/.226/.254). Understandably, the Tigers let Raburn go.
It was not clear that Raburn would even get a major league deal, but the Indians, being a low-revenue team that needs to take big calculated risks, did give him one. They have been smart thus far, using Raburn as mostly a corner outfielder. He has not been strictly platooned, but he almost half of his plate appearances have been against southpaws, which is a good proportion for a right-handed hitter, given that their splits regress more heavily to average. (Raburn has actually been good against righties this year, but that is probably a fair bit of random variation, too, so Terry Francona is right to try not to play him too much against them.) Raburn’s massive 168 wRC+ (.283/.377/.584) thus far this season does not have the typical BABIP hot streak as its main foundation — .321 is not that high. Raburn has improved is walk rate considerably (11.6 percent versus 7.1 percent career) and, more significantly, hit for massive power (.301 ISO). Obviously, while Raburn may have made adjustments, the organization and fans cannot expect him to continue at that pace for the remainder of his contract.
No one could have seen this coming from Raburn, but whatever luck is involved, the Indians deserve credit for being willing to go out on a bit of limb (Raburn is making more than the minimum) for a corner outfielder in his thirties coming off of two bad seasons. Both he and they have been rewarded; Raburn at the age of 32 and the team, fighting for its first playoff birth since 2007.