Baseball season is upon us, and the AL East is as competitive as ever. Any of the five teams could legitimately win 90 or more games, making it the most formidable division in Major League Baseball. I’ll be going position by position on a daily basis, analyzing how the Rays are situated heading into the season, and how they compare to the rest of the division at each spot. Before breaking down each position, I’d like to focus on what position player battles to keep an eye on during Spring Training.
There are many question marks entering the 2013 season for the Rays. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because of the positional flexibility of numerous players, along with platoon splits, it is difficult to nail down starters at a few positions. With BJ Upton and James Shields departing, who will step up to replace their leadership and play? Who will be playing Left Field for the Rays? What about 2nd base, 1st Base, and DH versus lefties? These are just some of the questions heading into camp this year.
Left Field appears to be the biggest question mark. Assuming Desmond Jennings slides over to Center Field, there are a few options for Joe Maddon. As we all know, Maddon enjoys playing to the strengths of his roster by employing platoon matchups. Originally, I believed that left field would be a mix of Sam Fuld and a right handed bat like Brandon Guyer. But as the offseason has unfolded, I’m not so sure. Kelly Johnson is the guy to keep an eye on. His name has been mentioned as a “super utility” type, but much of his action could be seen in left field. At this point, Guyer has almost no shot of making the Opening Day roster. This should become a battle between Johnson and Fuld, with Shelley Duncan getting a look. Fuld is better defensively, but will that make up for his offensive deficiencies? Keep an eye on how much playing time Johnson receives in left field this spring.
Another position that is a question mark is second base. Versus right handed pitching, expect to see Ben Zobrist out there on most days. But when a left handed pitcher is on the mound, he’ll be shifted to right field. Sorry Matt Joyce. There are three players vying to start at second base versus lefties. Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez, and Mr. Super Utility himself, Kelly Johnson. Kelly Johnson has shown the ability to hit both lefties and righties throughout his career, so I expect him to be playing versus lefties quite a bit this season. If he ends up in left field versus lefties, second base will come down to Sean Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts. Roberts has a guaranteed contract, while Sean Rodriguez has options left. This may play a factor. Roberts WILL be in the lineup versus left handed pitching. The question is where he will be playing in the field.
First base was a gaping hole last season, as Carlos Pena struggled mightily. The Rays picked up James Loney this offseason. Word to the wise, don’t expect to be seeing him during any home run contests. Although he struggled offensively last season, he has hit righties pretty well throughout his career and plays outstanding defense. The question is who will be playing first base versus lefties. Right now Ryan Roberts, Shelley Duncan, and Loney appear to be the only options. This will be a position of weakness for the Rays against lefties.
For position players, most of the 13 roster spots are locked up, barring a trade. But it appears the final spot will most likely come down to Sean Rodriguez and Shelley Duncan. My money is on Sean Rodriguez because he is simply a more valuable player. He can play just about every position on the diamond, and he hit lefties better then Duncan.
Evaluating the roster, clearly the Rays have much more depth and positional flexibility compared to last season. Joe Maddon will have a field day creating matchups for opposing pitchers and managers to deal with. There are plenty of new faces to familiarize ourselves with, and that’s part of the fun.
Tomorrow, I will analyze what to look for from Rays pitchers this spring.