On the Rays’ 2013 roster to begin the year, there was a weird quirk. Two starting players, James Loney and Kelly Johnson, were both making 2 million dollars, while a player who spent most of his time on the bench, Ryan Roberts, made 2.95 million dollars plus incentives. Why did the Rays retain Roberts’ services if they were not going to play him much anyway easily could have found a right-handed bench bat for cheaper? But then, all of a sudden, the situation resolved itself. Roberts has been in the Rays’ lineup at second base the last seven games, batting second in the lineup in the past six, and he has managed a .308/.379/.615 line with 2 doubles, 2 homers, 4 RBI, and a 6-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 29 plate appearances. Roberts is not this good of a player, and it will be interesting to see how he does the remainder of the season. However, as we see Roberts going from a player who the Rays bizarrely kept in light of their other offseason to a key piece of their lineup, it’s worth looking back on the reasons that the Rays decided to offer Roberts a contract this past offseason and keep him on their team.
If you asked anyone about the player who is the biggest key to the Rays’ success year-in, year-out, almost everyone will give you the same answer: Evan Longoria. When Longoria is healthy, everything changes for the Rays, with their lineup looking more dynamic and their defense emerging as one of the best in baseball. When he is sidelined, however, suddenly the Rays can’t score runs and their defense falls apart, and at the end of the day, they are are a .500 team at best. There’s a catch, though: Longoria isn’t going to miss the entire season, so all the Rays have to do when he’s not in the lineup is remain afloat until he comes back. After what happened in 2012, the Rays saw that they needed a player like Ryan Roberts to do just that. It was going to be a drop off from Longoria to anyone else, but it was downright embarrassing as they cycled through Drew Sutton, Brooks Conrad, Wil Rhymes and others trying to replace him, turning the third base position into an absolute black hole. In Ryan Roberts, they had a player with the ability to be better than that.
Roberts himself didn’t play that great in 2012, managing just a .235/.396/.360 line (78 OPS+) with 19 doubles, 12 homers, and 10 stolen bases in 489 plate appearances between the Diamondbacks and Rays. But as recently as 2011, Roberts had managed a .249/.341/.427 line (108 OPS+) with 19 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 555 plate appearances, proving that he had the ability to be not a franchise player, but at least a rock-solid one who can contribute to a winning team. And even if 2011 was going to be an isolated breakout for Roberts, he was a player who had hit lefties extremely well for his career, managing a .263/.343/.445 line in 542 plate appearances, and the fact that he had actually hit righties better than lefties was a fluke and a clear place where Roberts could improve. And there was another area where Roberts had proven himself much better than the replacement-level players the Rays had used in 2012: his defense. In 1694 career innings at third base, Roberts has a 5.7 UZR (4.5 UZR/150), and in 1167 innings at second base, he has been even better, managing a 10.1 UZR (12.5 UZR/150). Roberts could never be a Longoria-type player, but between his hitting, especially against lefties, his ability to swipe some bases, and his very good defense, he was a player who could still be a big part of the Rays’ roster.
It’s clear that Roberts was a big improvement depth-wise behind Longoria compared to the Rays’ previous options. But if they had Roberts, why did they conduct their offseason the way they did, signing James Loney and Kelly Johnson? Roberts became a player essentially confined to playing against lefty pitching and when Longoria needed a day off while players making less money than him got much more playing time. The answer to that is twofold: just because the Rays started the year managing their team that way didn’t mean that would persist the entire year, and Roberts wasn’t just depth for Longoria but Loney and Johnson as well. The Rays began the year with a certain plan, but the bottom line was going to be that whoever gave them the most production was going to be the one that saw the most playing time. Roberts worked his way into the lineup and has impressed enough to stay there so far. And in terms of Loney and Johnson, the Rays knew when they signed him that they carried significant risk. Both were coming off poor seasons, and they needed to have depth behind them in case they collapsed. Roberts was just that. Especially in the case of Johnson, if he lives up to his potential this season, he will be a better player than Roberts. But having Roberts as a security blanket was something that gave the Rays the opportunity to make these high-risk, high-reward moves for players like Johnson, Loney, and Yunel Escobar, and that insurance was something that was worth a few extra million dollars even for a team like the Rays.
Why did the Rays keep Ryan Roberts? They had a variety of reasons, all of them sound. He was due for a rebound at the plate after a tough 2012, played great defense, and most importantly, was an excellent depth piece who could contribute quite well should one of their starting players. They did not expect Roberts to work his way into their lineup on an everyday basis and run away with their second base job, and the chances are that he won’t. But at the same time, keeping Roberts was another upside move himself, only one with much less risk. He was an insurance policy first and foremost but still a player with talent of his own and the ability to make an impact for the Rays even if everyone stayed healthy and played well enough. We have to commend the Rays for not letting a somewhat-inflated salary figure by their standards stop them from making a move just as good as their other upside plays and maybe even better.