In recent days, we have heard about three key Tampa Bay Rays players missing time with injuries. Just days after returning from back soreness, Ben Zobrist was sidelined again with a stiff neck. Joel Peralta, the oldest pitcher on the team, is also dealing with a stiff neck. Then David DeJesus completes the trifecta with a sore side. Joe Maddon said “they’re all good” and expected to return to action in short order. The chances are that they will be just fine? But what if they did not? What if right now, on the eve of the most promising season in Rays history, three key players were set to miss the beginning of the season? It is unlikely to happen now, but there will be a point in the season where the Rays’ depth will be tested. Let’s take a look at this hypothetical situation to see how they would do.
DeJesus is the easiest of the three to replace. The Rays have another corner outfielder who only hits right-handed pitching in Matt Joyce, and Joyce would just slide back to the outfield. But then the Rays have a vacancy at DH in addition to the gaping hole left by Zobrist at second base. Who do the Rays have that could play second base? The Rays’ best options would be Sean Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe, Jayson Nix, and maybe even Vince Belnome and Hak-Ju Lee. Players for the DH spot could be Wilson Betemit, Jerry Sands, and Belnome. The chances are that the Rays would play it conservative and use a combination of Rodriguez, Forsythe, and rotate players at DH. Maybe Betemit or Sands could make a Shelley Duncan-like appearance at DH, or Belnome could take advantage of his presence on the 40-man roster to make a run at a spot. But especially if the injuries to DeJesus and Zobrist were going to last an extended period of time, the Rays’ best move could be to call up Kevin Kiermaier and Hak-Ju Lee to start.
Kiermaier and Lee are in about the same position as prospects–both are spectacular defenders who still have to prove themselves at the plate and could require a year at Triple-A to do so. But especially if the Rays could bide their time and keep them in Triple-A for a month to begin the year, a desperate situation could make the Rays decide to set them loose on the major leagues a little early. The Rays liked Kiermaier’s defense enough to call him up for Game 163, and his bat looked impressive in 2013 and thus far in spring training (as little as spring training stats mean). Kiermaier certainly could not be an offensive force off the bat, but he could be a defense-first centerfielder who provides solid hitting and speed at the bottom of the lineup. Lee, meanwhile, also appeared to break through before his injury last season, and his defense would overshadow any struggles at the plate. Either Lee or Yunel Escobar would have to slide at second base, but Escobar has played there before and Lee could learn the position in his time at Triple-A. With Kiermaier and Lee in the fold, the Rays’ defense would suddenly emerge as the best in baseball by a solid margin. It would not be an ideal situation, but the Rays could certainly do much worse and Kiermaier and/or Lee could make it even better if they adjust well to big league pitching.
Losing Peralta would be a tough blow, but the Rays have a bevy of bullpen arms now. Grant Balfour is set to close with not only Peralta but Heath Bell, and Jake McGee also looking like setup men in front of him. Juan Carlos Oviedo also has late-inning experience. Then to fill out the rest of the relief corps, the Rays have Cesar Ramos, Erik Bedard, Mark Lowe, Brandon Gomes, and Josh Lueke as veteran options and less experienced players like C.J. Riefenhauser, Kirby Yates, Alex Colome, and Mike Montgomery who could force the issue before long as well. Aside from maybe Balfour at closer, there is no one reliever who the Rays could not survive losing because the talented arms just keep on coming.
Losing three important players at the same time is a worst-case scenario that at at least a couple of major league teams will deal this season. Which players go down certainly matters, but this little thought experiment about Ben Zobrist, David DeJesus, and Joel Peralta heading onto the disabled list shows us that the Rays are ready. The Rays will need plenty of luck in the injury department to contend for the AL East title and the best record in the American League. However, even if injuries do strike, the Rays have legitimate replacements ready and will remain firmly in the playoff race. That has to be a good feeling.