This past July, the Rays didn’t just acquire a potential contributing player, but one with a great nickname in Ryan Roberts, aka ‘TatMan’. But the question now is going to be where he fits in. Every position for the Rays is essentially filled with the recent signings of RHP Kyle Farnsworth, DH Luke Scott, and the surprise signing of 2B Kelly Johnson. This begs an obvious question: how will all the pieces come together? What will the lineup look like on a daily basis? Obviously different match-ups against right handed or left handed pitchers and/or playing in an NL park during inter-league play would be another topic all together. But with each position pretty much accounted for where exactly does Ryan Roberts fit?
As it stands now with the signing of Kelly Johnson, Roberts is looking like the potential odd man out for a position on the diamond and full time at-bats. Almost every position is definitely filled: Evan Longoria will be at third base, Yunel Escobar will be the shortstop, Desmond Jennings will be in centerfield, Matt Joyce will hold down a corner outfield spot, Luke Scott will DH, James Loney will be at first base against right-handed pitching, and Jose Molina and either Jose Lobaton or Chris Gimenez will do the catching. What’s left is second base, left field, and first base against right-handed pitching, and those should be filled by Ben Zobrist at second base and Johnson playing left field despite not having played the position in the major leagues since 2005 or alternatively Zobrist in right field, Johnson at second base, and Matt Joyce in left field. What’s left unoccupied among what we have listed is first base against left-handed pitching, where Ryan Roberts, a right-handed hitter, could fit in, but he has never played first base in the major leagues, although he did play there 9 times at Triple-A back in 2007. But Roberts won’t actually have to play first base thanks to the versatility of Johnson and Ben Zobrist. When Loney leaves the lineup, the Rays can slide say Zobrist to first base and put Roberts at second base. Although it seems like a waste of Zobrist’s defensive abilities to put him at first base, Roberts has proven himself to be a plus defender at second base, so the drop-off from him to Roberts would not be so significant, and there are certainly worse things than having the sure-handed Zobrist at first base.
But Roberts’ playing time for the Rays in 2013 will not be limited to second base against left-handed pitching. As we discussed a couple days ago, the Rays are going to be more careful with Evan Longoria next season after a couple injury-riddled years and offseason hamstring surgery, and that will lead to Longoria doing some more DHing and getting some days off. We suggested that Longoria could shift DH against some lefties because Luke Scott is a left-handed hitter who has shown some struggles against lefties the past couple of years, and he even could get the occasional day off against a tough right-hander in an effort to keep him fresh. When Longoria is not at third base, the Rays don’t have another natural third baseman on their roster- except Roberts. Roberts should see time at third base in addition to second against left-handed pitching, and he’s even a candidate to play third base against right-handed pitching when Longoria isn’t in the lineup. On the year, Roberts should end up seeing playing time at second base, third base, and even left field, where he has logged 35 career MLB games. But Roberts actually has minor league experience at every position on the diamond, including 4 emergency games at catcher including as recently at 2010, and you know that Joe Maddon will utilize Roberts’ underrated versatility when the need arises next season. And all of this goes without saying that even when Roberts sits against right-handed pitching, there will be a time in a lot of games when the opposing team brings in a lefty specialist to face one of the Rays’ many left-handed batters (Joyce, Kelly Johnson, Loney, Scott, Sam Fuld), but when they do they will have to take into account the possibility of Roberts pinch-hitting.
It doesn’t appear at first glance like there are very many at-bats available for Roberts this season. But if he plays well, he could end up as a regular (at second or third base) against left-handed pitching, a backup for Evan Longoria at third base even against right-handed pitching, a key pinch-hitter off the bench, and even play a spattering of games all over the diamond. Joe Maddon is going to have to get creative to give Roberts regular playing time, but luckily that’s exactly what he’s known for and you can rest assured that even with Roberts lacking a set position on the diamond, he will get in the lineup and he will make an impact for the Rays next season.