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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