The argument was simple for the Rays: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Top prospect Wil Myers was rolling at Triple-A, but the Rays offense was surging and didn’t need him. It was certainly possible for the Rays to fit Myers into their lineup every day, but doing so would require losing a man from a group of position players who were playing well and had stayed together basically the entire season. So what did Joe Maddon decide to do? He gave Kelly Johnson an audition to see whether he could render Ryan Roberts redundant. Johnson passed, and once he did, the Rays could no longer keep Myers in the minor leagues.
Over the past week, Evan Longoria dealt with plantar fasciitis in his foot, an injury that has prevented him from playing defensively the past few days. Between Longoria’s current ailment and the fact that the Rays simply want to rest him as much as possible over the course of the season, it’s important that they have players available to back him up. For the entire season, that was Ryan Roberts. Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist also had experience at third base, but neither was comfortable there so Roberts was the guy. Whenever Longoria got a half or full day off, Roberts was the player who slotted in at third. The issue has been, though, that Roberts hasn’t been hitting. His batting line on the season is just .238/.294/.349 (81 OPS+), and while he hit lefties extremely well (.905 OPS), he was completely unplayable against right-handed pitching, managing just a .162/.230/.191 line in 74 plate appearances. When Longoria was the designated hitter or got the day off against a right-handed pitcher, the Rays were essentially surrendering 3 automatic outs a game if not more by playing Roberts at third. The Rays had to find a better solution than that.
The Rays certainly were not going to make a trade to find a backup third baseman and it was going to have to come from within their roster. Despite their previous struggles, Zobrist and Rodriguez seemed like obvious candidates. However, Rodriguez has the same issue as Roberts as he has just a .522 OPS against right-handed pitching, and playing Zobrist at third base would just make everything more complicated. If Zobrist was at third base with a lefty on the mound, Kelly Johnson could play second base, but either Sam Fuld or Matt Joyce was going to have to play the outfield, certainly not the ideal. So the solution became simple: keep Zobrist comfortable by keeping him at second base, move Johnson to third base, and put Wil Myers as the right fielder, erasing all the Rays’ issues–if Johnson could play third base.
Before this season, Johnson’s last time at third base was 2005, when he played 4 games there at the Braves’ Triple-A Richmond affiliate. Overall in the minor leagues, Myers played 15 games at the hot corner, managing just a .881 fielding percentage. But after everything that Johnson has done this season, the Rays had ample reason to try again. After Johnson played exclusively second base from 2007 to 2012, already this season he has played left field for the first time since 2005 and done a great job, and he has also played first base for the first time in his professional career. After the Rays’ unlocking of Johnson’s versatility has emerged as a highlight for them this season and a great statement to their team’s ability to utilize all their players in the most creative way possible, why not see if he could add one more position to his repertoire? Johnson hasn’t been the prettiest defender but played errorless ball the last four games at third base, giving the Rays confidence that he can at least be a backup when Longoria rests. And once they confirmed that, Roberts became a redundant player who could be sent down in favor of Myers, with his ability to play third base covered by Johnson and his proficiency against lefties certainly made up for by the righty-hitting Myers.
The Rays were hoping that somehow the situation with Wil Myers would just work itself out and an injury would give him a wide-open opportunity in the major leagues. When that didn’t happen, though, they found a creative way to create an opening and get Myers his chance. What other team in baseball would possibly think of using their starting left fielder at third base? No one, only the Rays. When Wil Myers bursts onto the scene in the major leagues, we will have to credit the Rays for their innovative ways to utilize their players and Kelly Johnson for his ability to play third base.