September 20, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) smiles and puts up two fingers as there was 2 outs in the fourth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays' Kelly Johnson Signing Gives Them Additional Flexibility With Evan Longoria

Evan Longoria is the heart and soul of the Rays, and he will be for a very long time after the Rays signed him to an extension back in November that will keep him in Tampa Bay through 2022 with an option for 2023. But at the same time, he’s a player who has gotten into just 207 games the last two years combined including just 74 in 2012, and his injury problems are not completely behind him yet. Hidden in the very same article where the Rays announced the Longoria extension was the fact that Longoria underwent a procedure to repair his left hamstring, which had sidelined him from the start of May until early August. The surgery was described as “minor” and Longoria is expected to be 100% in time for spring training, but it still has to concern you that Longoria, who has missed nearly half of the games the Rays have played the last two years, will be entering 2013 coming off another procedure. How concerned are the Rays about that? Considering they extended Longoria, you have to think that they believe he’ll be able to stay healthy moving forward, but their recent signing of Kelly Johnson may indicate just how cautious the Rays are going to be with Longoria at least for next season.

From 2009 to 2010, Evan Longoria averaged 154 games played per season. The Rays hope that he’ll go back to being that player again- but it’s hard to expect that to happen in 2013. With Longoria coming off of so many injuries, the Rays may have decided that at least for the short-term, they’re best off being cautious with Longoria to keep him healthy. Instead of playing him every single day, maybe it’s best to give him an off-day and a game at DH every two-week period. In 2011, Longoria played in 133 games, but the big issue was that the games he missed with consecutively in April, and once he came back, he was not the same player for a few months. In 2013, the Rays may be best off holding Longoria to 135 or 140 games, but keeping him off the DL and keeping him strong when he does play. But how will the Rays do that without losing significant production offensively? Enter Kelly Johnson. Johnson is no Longoria, no superstar, but he’s a solid hitter with solid power and solid speed. He also happens to be a left-handed hitter while Longoria is right-handed. Why is that important? It’s not like they’re going to platoon! It makes a difference because the Rays could give Longoria a day off against a tough right-handed pitcher without losing all that much because Johnson will have the platoon advantage. And against tough lefties, Longoria certainly won’t get the day off too often because he’s more than capable against them, but Rays DH Luke Scott might, and Longoria could potentially move to DH with Kelly Johnson or Ryan Roberts seeing time on the infield.

It was reported after the Johnson signing that the Rays were planning to have Ben Zobrist not move to the outfield like you would expect but instead man second base on a pretty regular basis. But what would that mean for Kelly Johnson and Roberts? Johnson was reportedly going to see time around the field, getting into games at left field and third base in addition to second base when Zobrist plays the outfield, but what about Roberts? He’s making nearly $3MM next year and the Rays can’t just designate him for assignment or let him rot on the bench. The answer is that there could be a lot more playing time available than you would think for Roberts. Look at all these different lineup configurations the Rays could have based on whether they’re facing a righty or a lefty and whether Longoria is playing, DHing, or getting the day off.

Obviously, the Rays would love to have Evan Longoria in their lineup everyday (that lineup versus righties looks great, and the lineup versus lefties is not too shabby either), but the risks of doing that outweigh the benefits, and the Rays had to find alternate solutions this offseason. The Rays have done exactly that, putting together a group of players that will allow them to be as strong as possible when Longoria gets half or full days off. The Rays lineup certainly looks less imposing with Longoria out, but role players like Kelly Johnson, Ryan Roberts, Sam Fuld, and Brandon Guyer will get to play to their niches and the increased production the Rays will get from a healthy Longoria during the vast majority of games that he does play will be worth giving him several more days off. The Rays are concerned about Longoria and are going to be more cautious with him next season than they ever have before. However, thanks to the group of players the Rays have assembled, the hit when Longoria rests will not be as significant as it would have been previously and the results of the additional rest- Longoria staying healthy the entire year- will easily outweigh whatever the Rays will lose when he’s not in the lineup.

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  • buddaley

    I see you expect the Rays to drop Sean Rodriguez. Do you think Zobrist becomes the backup shortstop? I am inclined to think that, barring a trade, Rodriguez starts the year on the roster, and Guyer starts in Durham.

    Also, I wonder why you have Kelly Johnson as the left fielder vs. lefties with Longoria at 3B. I know he has rather slight platoon splits, but you have him starting in every situation. If Guyer is on the team, wouldn’t it make sense to start Guyer in LF vs. lefties when Longoria plays 3B?

    Do you think Maddon will use Zobrist at 1B and 3B? I thought he was uncomfortable at 1B and am not sure he is much of a third baseman either.

  • phattitudes

    The Rays have 3 Left Handed hitters who are weak against Left Handed pitching, Joyce, Loney, and Scott. The Rays should leave Zobrist at 2B or RF where he is a defensive plus player. Right now, the three candidates for platooning are Guyer, Roberts, and Rodriguez. If I were one of them, I would be looking to improve my odds by shopping for a first baseman’s glove and taking balls at the local high school field. There is a strong need (as yet unfilled) for a Right Handed platoon at 1B, but let’s not lose the defensive advantage Zobrist brings to 2B and RF. The other open position (right now) is left field. So back the high school field and I hope you see K. Johnson trying to regain his feel for the outfield. He could be a everyday (right now) player in the lineup if he grabs the left field job. I think Fuld and Rodriguez are both on the bubble pending another right handed hitting acquisition. I expect to see it but only time will tell. In the mean time Rodriguez at least should be working on his 1B defense.

  • Robbie_Knopf

    @phatitudes and @buddaley, Johnson actually is better against lefties than righties for his career, and although he has struggled the last couple of years, I think the Rays will give him a chance to hit lefties. (He’s also batting 8th in my hypothetical lineup, so the expectations are not too high.) Guyer has some potential, but there’s a pretty decent chance he starts the season at Triple-A and even if he cracks the roster to begin the year, he’s going to have to prove himself before he gets consistent time over a veteran like Johnson. In terms of Rodriguez, he’s not gone quite yet, but he certainly has work to do to regain Joe Maddon’s trust. As you may have noticed, the role of right-handed first baseman is already filled because Zobrist or someone can just slide over their with player like Roberts, Guyer, and Rodriguez seeing time.

    Addressing your other random questions, the presence of Zobrist and knowledge that he can play a good shortstop gives the Rays a ton of roster flexibility and because of that only one of Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson, and Reid Brignac might make the Rays’ roster out of spring training. Fuld is firmly on the team, but Rodriguez could very well be DFA’d at some point. In terms of using Zobrist at first and third base, I’m sure he’ll work at it during spring training as will Kelly Johnson and the Rays will figure out their defensive alignment when Loney’s not on the lineup by the end of spring training. Using Zobrist at first seems like a waste, but I’d certainly trust him there more than Johnson. One aside to note is that Roberts is a plus defensive second baseman, so the drop off from him to Zobrist is not very significant, and Roberts is also a good third baseman, so I don’t think the Rays will have as many qualms moving Zobrist to a non-premium position when Roberts comes in.

    • phattitudes

      The bottom line is that the right handed platoon hitters are a significant drop off to the left handers they potentially replace. Of the 3 Guyer has the most potential and probably won’t stick. Yet they need a big bat to improve that situation. Joyce deserves a chance to show what he can do against leftes although Joe may not agree. Even Scott can be somewhat functional. Loney is the problem. He is the weakest of the group. Therefore it would be ideal if that big bat could play 1B. Stay tuned that bat is out there and Andrew is on a mission. One bat that could funtion in the 5 hole would make the picturei much brighter. The rest of the solution is already there for Joe to shuffle into over 100 different lineups in 2013.

      • Robbie_Knopf

        Maybe it would be best, but I seriously doubt it’s happening. The X-factor is going to be Ryan Roberts, who destroyed lefties in 2011 and the Rays hope he can get back to that next season, and the Rays also need solid showings from Joyce and Kelly Johnson against lefties. The good news: Wil Myers happens to be a right-handed hitter.

        • phattitudes

          On further review, they Rays may feel they have a right handed option at 1B in Duncan. To me he is a right handed insurance policy should Guyer not be ready. A lot depends on how things unfold in spring training. If i were Andrew, I would go after Jesus Guzman from the Padres. He’s a great fit. Plays OF and 1B and has a .895 OPS against lefties. He is behind Alonzo at 1B and an experienced OF. The Rays got to have pieces the Padres would want. On top of everything else he is cheap and has extended years of team control. If they think they have a solution fine, but Guzman would be a nice add to the mix.

          • Robbie_Knopf

            Duncan is an option- it’s nice that he can play both first base and the outfield and potentially hit for good power- but I’ll sell the possibility of acquiring Guzman because there’s no reason for the Padres to trade him. He’s cheap and they need every bat that they can get- and by the way, he can play left field, right field, and even fake second base, so the Padres will find him a place in the lineup if he hits (and even when he’s not starting, pinch-hitting is a big part of NL baseball). Unless the Padres are willing to trade for pocket change, no deal is happening and the Rays are going to have to survive with what they have.