Third base was an interesting position for the Rays throughout the middle portion of the season. While Evan Longoria locked down the position at the beginning and the end of the season, the Rays used eight different players at third, including two that were not even on the 40 man roster at the end of the season.
Longoria proved, once again, that he may be the most important piece on the team. Not only did he finish tied for fourth in home runs on the team despite playing in half the games, but he had the highest OPS+ of any of the Rays. For the year, Longoria produced a .289/.369/.527 batting line, with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs. Had he played a full season, Longoria’s OPS of .896 would have placed him fourth amongst third basemen throughout baseball.
Defensively, Longoria also proved his value to the Rays. Even though he was roughly league average this year, those numbers are skewed due to his hamstring injury. When he first came back, Longoria’s range appeared limited, but it improved as the continued to get healthier. A two time Gold Glove Award winner, Longoria has consistently been amongst the best all around players at third. Jeff Keppinger was also solid defensively, committing only two errors in 84 chances.
Replacing one of the best players at a position is difficult for even the teams with a large payroll, but finding someone to fill in for Longoria was a nightmare for the Rays. Removing Longoria from the equation, Rays third basemen combined to hit .242, with 17 doubles, 0 home runs, and only 28 RBIs. This lack of production greatly contributed to the Rays finishing 21st in home runs, 16thin batting average, and 17th in slugging amongst third basemen in the MLB.
The Rays were a disaster at third defensively last season, committing the most errors and having the worst fielding percentage of any team at the position. Elliot Johnson played six games at third, and had two errors. Will Rhymes (15 games) and Sean Rodriguez (49 games) each had fielding percentages under .900. The position was defensively inept to the point that Chris Gimenez, who had not played at third base during his major league time, and had not received extensive action at third since 2005, appeared there for an inning this past season.
Looking Ahead To 2013:
A healthy Longoria solves a lot of these problems. One of the top players at his position, his presence alone helped improve the Rays offense to the point where they almost managed to slide into the playoffs. Having Ryan Roberts in the fold provides solid protection should Longoria get injured again, and will likely keep the Rays from having to cycle through options if a replacement is needed.
Should Keppinger return, his presence would also help the Rays depth at third base. His ability to make contact, and solid glovework, would give Tampa a nice duo should an injury occur.
In the end, third base for the Rays begins and ends with Evan Longoria. As one of the best players at his position in the game, the hopes of Tampa’s offense may rest on his shoulders once again in 2013.