The Tampa Bay Rays’ bench has been a major issue thus far in 2014. Its problems have not as pronounced as that of the rotation, bullpen, or the offense in general, but it may be the situation least likely to get better. Sean Rodriguez has played well, but we know he is not this good and will only cool down. (Not to mention that he has not played since May 7th. Is he dealing with a nagging injury?) Logan Forsythe has been a disaster all year, managing just a .182/.257/.258 line. Finally, there is Brandon Guyer, who has the ability to make an impact but has not found the playing time to get going. Only Rodriguez is playing well, but even if all three were living up to expectations, the bench has a major flaw: all three hitters are right-handed. The Rays have found themselves in too many situations where a right-handed hitter like Forsythe is up against a righty pitcher and everyone in the building knows that their chances of success are very low. The good news, though, is that there is an easy fix–Forsythe can be optioned to Durham to make room for another hitter. Is there a good enough replacement at Triple-A to make that feasible?
The best left-handed hitter and quite possibly the best player overall on the Durham Bulls’ roster is Kevin Kiermaier. The outfield prospect is off to an excellent start at the plate and on the basepaths, hitting to a .321/.371/.491 line in 118 plate appearances and swiping 10 bases in 11 attempts. Add in his excellent defense, and Kiermaier is looking increasingly more like a starting outfielder. Kiermaier would be an excellent piece on the Rays’ bench, but the problem is actually his all-around potential. Kiermaier would get more at-bats than say Guyer, but are the Rays really going to call him up to start a couple of times a week when he has the ability to make a bigger impact if he continues developing? The benefit of bringing him Kiermaier simply does not outweigh the long-term cost. If Kiermaier is going to be called up for any extended period of time before September, it is only going to be in a starting role.
If Kiermaier is not an option, the popular choice for a call-up is Wilson Betemit. The reasoning is not hard to follow: he is a player at Triple-A who hits right-handed pitching extremely well and has even done so in the major leagues for an extended period of time. From 2010 to 2012, Betemit had a .280/.346/.459 line (118 OPS+) in 1050 plate appearances, and he has a .279/.347/.472 line in 1766 career PA’s against righties. To begin the Triple-A season, he has put up a .246/.336/.459 line with 5 doubles, 7 homers, 18 RBI, and a 45-18 strikeout to walk ratio in 143 plate appearances. Most notably, he has a .274/.358/.537 line in 109 plate appearances against righties, swatting all 7 of his home runs. Betemit has never really hit left-handed pitching, but he has hit righties well his entire career and continues to do so now. Why wouldn’t the Rays call him up?
The issue with Betemit is his complete lack of versatility. It would be nice for the Rays to have a strong lefty hitter on the bench, but his ineptitude against lefties would give the Rays three players on their roster who can’t hit them at all between him, David DeJesus, and Matt Joyce. That is even worse because of Betemit’s defensive limitations. He was once able to play the middle infield positions, but he has not played shortstop in the major leagues since 2008 and has played second base only once since 2010. He is limited to first base and third base, but even that may be giving him too much credit. He has always been a disastrous defender at third base, managing -13 defensive runs saved per year and a -13.4 UZR/150. It says a lot that the Bulls have only let him play third base once this season–if the Rays wanted to see Betemit at third base, he would certainly be playing there more often than that. Betemit is essentially a first baseman and designated hitter at this point in his career. If he ever pinch-hits for anyone at another position, the Rays would need to use another player to replace him defensively. If Betemit was a great hitter, that might work, but he is not good enough to warrant the number of inconveniences he would cause.
There are a couple other options on the Durham roster, but Jerry Sands is right-handed and Vince Belnome has just a .193/.331/.303 line to begin the year. The bottom line with the Tampa Bay Rays’ current bench options is that Kiermaier is the only player who would be an actual upgrade, and he is not worth calling up because it would hinder his development. It is far from ideal, but expect the Rays to stick with Rodriguez, Forsythe, and Guyer for now.