The Fatal Flaw With the Tampa Bay Rays’ Bench
One of the Tampa Bay Rays’ major competitions in spring training was for their bench jobs. The eventual winners turned out to be Sean Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe, and Brandon Guyer, and that was exactly what most Rays fans wanted. Rodriguez and Forsythe are versatile players who stand out for their hitting against lefties while Guyer is a talented outfielder that will finally get his chance after battling through injuries. There was only one issue with carrying all three of them on the roster: they are all right-handed hitters.
We have already seen in the Rays’ first three games that when a right-handed pitcher is starting, they do not have a lefty bat to come off the bench. The only lefty batters on the team are Ben Zobrist (a switch-hitter), James Loney, Matt Joyce, and David DeJesus, and Zobrist and Loney will be in the lineup just about every day while Joyce and DeJesus start against righties. Once DeJesus is ready to return to the lineup, the Rays will have two lefty pinch-hit options (DeJesus and Joyce) plus a right-handed one (Rodriguez, Forsythe, or Guyer) available when needed later in the game–but that is only against a left-handed starters. Against righties, however, the Rays are stuck. If Ryan Hanigan comes up to the plate against a right-hander with the bases loaded in the 8th inning, the Rays will probably stick with him because none of their bench options has proven himself against right-handed pitching. That is a sorry state of affairs. Are the Rays just going to have to live with this situation or is there something they can do?
The thing about Forsythe and Guyer is that the Rays do still believe that they will be able to hit same-side pitchers. Forsythe dealt with plantar fasciitis in his right foot in 2013, and the Rays acquired him from the San Diego Padres believing he had more offensive potential in his bat. Guyer, meanwhile, was better against lefties the last three years in the minors, managing a .330/.411/.498 line, but he was not much worse at all against right-handers, hitting them hard as well to the tune of a .296/.366/.484 line. He actually showed better power against righties, managing a .188 isolated power versus .168 against lefties. What the Rays really need is for one of Forsythe or Guyer to become an actual option against right-handed pitching. If one of them can, the Rays’ bench situation will get significantly better.
The Rays also have a quality left-handed hitter stashed at Triple-A Durham. Wilson Betemit happens to be a switch-hitter, but it is against right-handed pitching that he truly shines, hitting them to a .279/.347/.472 line in his career. From 2010 to 2012, his OPS against them was never below .850. Betemit could be a player the Rays could call upon if their bench situation does not work itself out, but first he has to prove that he is healthy after a knee injury sidelined him for nearly all of 2013. If not Betemit, the Rays have Vince Belnome already on the 40-man roster, a versatile lefty swinger who stands out most for his plate discipline. The Rays do have options in their organization if they do want to add that lefty pinch-hitter. But would the Rays be willing to demote Forsythe or Rodriguez or designate Guyer for assignment to accommodate one of them? We are certainly far from that point right now.
Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays love to have maximum flexibility, and right now, they do not have it. A quality lefty hitter on the bench would make the Rays a better team. The good news, though, is that even though the Rays are a right-handed team, those right-handed hitters are players the Rays can rely on–we are never going to see the Rays pinch-hit for Evan Longoria or Wil Myers, and Desmond Jennings and Yunel Escobar have proven themselves worth keeping in as well. The only real situation where the Rays have a problem is when a right-handed pitcher starts for the opposition and one of their catchers comes up in a big spot against a righty later in the game. It is frustrating that the Rays do not have much they can do when that arises, but the Rays can hope that either Logan Forsythe or Brandon Guyer proves himself an option against right-handed pitching, and they do have a pair of lefty batters at Triple-A if they deem it necessary to call one up. At the end of the day, if this is the Rays’ worst problem, they are doing pretty well, and they can always address it at the trade deadline if it remains an issue at that time.