As Elliot Johnson Falters, Rays Must Consider Alternate Options

By Robbie Knopf

It seemed like a good move at the time, putting Elliot Johnson back at his natural position, second base. But the result was more of the same. Johnson made a pivotal error, throwing wildly on a throw to home plate to score 2 runs and that was the margin in the Yankees’ 6-4 victory over the Rays. Errors, even in demoralizing spots, inevitably happen to everyone. But in that game alone, Johnson also let a bloop go in and out of his glove to start a 3-run rally by the Yankees and he failed to lay down a squeeze bunt. However, that one game was far from the beginning of Johnson’s struggles. He has struggled wherever the Rays have put him defensively all year, whether at shortstop, third base, or second base. And not only that, his bat has completely collapsed as well. Johnson’s .243/.306/.344 line (85 OPS+) on the season with 5 homers and 17 stolen bases is not that bad, but since July 16th, he has just a .155/.218/.255 line in 80 plate appearances with 1 home run and just 2 stolen bases, striking out 22 times while walking just 4 times. He’s not hitting and he’s not defending. The Rays need to assess all their options to try to find an infield solution better than what Johnson has given them of late.

The Rays have three infielders that they’re happy about: Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and Jeff Keppinger. The question is the fourth spot, which could be either shortstop, second base, or first base thanks to the versatility of Zobrist and Keppinger. Johnson has been that guy against right-handed pitching and has halfway-decent numbers on the year against them, posting a .280/.329/.358 line, an 85 sOPS+ (15% below average). Can the Rays do better than that especially considering Johnson’s subpar defense? A big player moving forward for the Rays could be Luke Scott at first base, who slammed his 13th home run of the season on Wednesday. Scott has a .249/.294/.503 line (109 sOPS+) versus right-handed pitching on the season. But although he has power, Scott has not been able to get on base consistently all season. Carlos Pena is another option at first base, but he has looked washed up.

How about Reid Brignac? Brignac is a superb defender at shortstop and would give the Rays their best infield defense of the season. Will he hit at all? Well, he is a left-handed hitter and was decent against lefties at Triple-A this year, posting a .230/.316/.371 line with 8 home runs, and Brignac was solid overall on the season after a horrific start. Why not give him a try? Then you have Ryan Roberts, who has been starting against lefties and has been much better against them for his career, but this year, he has actually been better against righties, posting a .244/.311/.352 line (90 sOPS+) in 282 plate appearances. He is also good defender at both second and third base, posting UZR’s of 5.1 and 3.3 respectively at those positions over the last 3 years. Roberts has just a .224/.298/.352 line since joining the Rays, but could that improve if he saw more regular playing time against right-handed pitching?

The Rays are going to consider all their options. They’re going to give chances to all these different players over the course of the coming month. Elliot Johnson will still see playing time. For all his deficiencies, Johnson gave the Rays solid performance while they were ravaged by injuries. But the Rays need every advantage they can get as they battle for a playoff spot down the stretch and they will stop at nothing as they try to put the best team that they can on the field game in and game out.