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Projecting 2015: Next Year’s Tampa Bay Rays Lineup

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The Tampa Bay Rays, as of last night, have officially been eliminated from playoff contention. The lateness of the date is surely surprising for those that fail to recall how terribly this team performed at the beginning of the season. As such, it is as good of a time as any to make a few projections about the Tampa Bay Rays roster next season. The good news is that because of their great pitching, the Rays won’t need to do much to make a push for the 2015 postseason. In this piece I’m going to focus on the positional players, and I will talk about the starting and relief pitching for other posts.

Lineup vs. LHP (in positional – not batting – order)

DH: Logan Forsythe C: Ryan Hanigan/Jose Molina, 1B: Sean Rodriguez 2B: Ben Zobrist/Nick Franklin 3B: Evan Longoria SS: Yunel Escobar LF: Brandon Guyer/Zobrist/Franklin? CF: Desmond Jennings RF: Wil Myers

Here’s a few key points in this lineup.

First Base:  The Rays regular first baseman, James Loney, should not be there against southpaws. Given that his defense has been less than sterling this season (any league average defender would have played better defense this season than Loney, although defensive statistics are fairly subjective). With Loney’s defense taking a step-back, his .273 wOBA and 70 wRC+ vs LHP is harder to stomach. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is a better option at first-base vs LHP moving forward given his ability to hit southpaws with some pop. You do have to wonder, though, if the Rays will play Loney just for the purpose of playing their *highest paid free-agent ever*.

Shortstop: Escobar, the worst defensive shortstop in the league (once again the small sample size that comes with defensive statistics applies), is the reason why the Rays rank dead last for shortstop defense. He did bring a strong reputation as a defender headed into this year, so the Rays hope he can bounce-back. This year, he has not possessed enough offense to counterbalance his lack of defense.  But, 105 wRC+ vs LHP is at least slightly better than statistical average, which means he will play almost every game at short against LHP. Any alternative to Yunel at short is unlikely: the team’s announced desire to reduce payroll next season points to no big free agents, the Rays lack internal replacement candidates, and Escobar has hurt his ability to bring back anything in a trade.

Center Field:

Defensively, Jennings has a great reputation, but one, like Loney’s, which advanced stats do not support. His UZR at 5.0 which, according to the FanGraphs UZR primer is at the cusp of average and above-average. As you might guess, this seems to be a result mostly of Jennings’ speed. Offensively, His 2014 numbers vs LHP are not bad, but he will need to improve his OBP vs LHP. The interesting question here is how a Jennings-Kiermaier platoon in center would work out given Kiermaier’s inability to hit LHP and Jennings’ underwhelming numbers against righties. If Jennings is not traded this off-season, a Jennings/Kiermaier CF platoon appears to be the destiny for the 2015 Tampa Bay Rays lineup.

The lineup against RHP is simpler to account for, and I’ll only present the differences from the vs LHP lineup.

DH: David DeJesus/Matt Joyce 2B: Zobrist/Franklin SS: Escobar/Franklin LF: Joyce/DeJesus CF: Kiermaier

The real question here is whether Escobar will improve his overall game enough to merit continued time at short. If not, Franklin appears to be the go-to candidate, at least against righties. That will be something to monitor as the season goes on, and it is likely that Escobar gets another chance to prove himself before he loses a starting job.

With the team wanting to decrease payroll, it seems probable that a player or two among this group will be traded. The player with the most overlap is Zobrist and he might also have the most trade-value behind Longoria. Zobrist is a free agent after the 2015 season, so his value is higher than it will ever be again (unless the Rays extend him). Joyce and DeJesus are logical candidates because they make each other redundant on the roster, and the emergence of Kiermaier could make Jennings expendable.

All-in-all, this is a decent bunch for the Rays. With a couple of bounce-back seasons from key guys like Longoria and Myers, this lineup could soon turn into a solid bunch. We will likely see at least a couple of changes from this bunch thanks to trades or free agent signings, but this is a fairly good representation of how the Rays roster could look next year.

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