While many people believe that Tampa Bay Rays need to acquire better hitters, it looks more likely that they will be trading an outfielder or two instead. Under contract for next season are Desmond Jennings, Wil Myers, Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Guyer, Matt Joyce, and David DeJesus, not to mention the fact that Ben Zobrist is a more-than-capable outfielder himself. There simply is not enough playing time to go around for the Rays to carry all six of the pure outfielders, making Joyce a prime trade candidate and Jennings a possibility to be dealt as well. Forgotten in this discussion, though, is the fate of Mikie Mahtook, who is coming off a breakout season at Triple-A Durham. Does Mahtook have any chance of breaking into the Rays’ outfield anytime soon?
One of the Rays’ most glaring weaknesses is one of the biggest things going in Mikie Mahtook’s favor. The Rays have one or more incumbents ready to fill all nine non-pitcher positions, but just because such players exist does not mean that the Rays have perfect situations at each spot. For instance, Yunel Escobar is returning, but unless he rediscovers his 2013 form, the Rays will be dreaming of an upgrade at shortstop. That is especially true in the outfield, where every player has some flaw. Myers’ 2014 has been a disaster, Jennings and Guyer have not been great against right-handed pitching, Joyce and DeJesus can’t hit lefties, and we’re not sure whether Kiermaier will hit at all in the long-term.
With the way the Rays’ roster current looks, the Rays likely have playing time available for four outfielders on most nights, with the DH spot also being an option. Right now, the Rays’ best alignment would likely be Myers, Kiermaier, Joyce, and DeJesus versus righties and Myers, Jennings, Guyer, and Zobrist against lefties (with say Logan Forsythe at second base). There is very little chance, though, that we will actually see the Rays carry five platoon outfielders with only Myers playing every day. The count of six outfielders total seems daunting enough, but the limitations of five of them only make things worse. The Rays have to deal with a trade-off between getting everyone playing time and putting their best four outfielders on the field for every game.
This is not a case where the Rays can simply choose their best three or four outfielders and deal from among the rest because only certain combinations of the six would make sense. For example, trading Joyce and DeJesus to go with younger players could look like the right move, but then the Rays would be stuck in the less-than-ideal situation of having either Jennings or Guyer starting regularly against righties alongside the question mark Kiermaier. (Nick Franklin would ensure that only one would have to start.) The way to move past this would be to find full-time starters, but while the potential is there for Myers, Jennings, Kiermaier, and Guyer, nothing is certain for any of them. Mahtook can at least be another name to throw into the hat.
Mahtook still has plenty to prove himself. While he hit to a strong .292/.362/.458 line in 2014, he struck out a scary 137 times against 46 walks and managed just a .259/.331/.397 line against right-handed pitching. Mahtook swayed enough doubters that he now looks like a big league-quality player, but that still doesn’t mean that he will be more than a fourth outfielder. If that is the case, he will be stuck at Triple-A until an opportunity arises, which may not be for a while. If he can prove himself to be a possible starter, though, that would be an entirely different story. If Mikie Mahtook can emerge as an option against pitchers of both sides, the Rays would love to trade a couple of their platoon guys and gain roster flexibility. In fact, we can say the same thing about any Rays prospect who can play the outfield or second base, with Zobrist’s versatility helping the latter group.
While the Rays seem destined to go with a similar group of position players for next season, with Nick Franklin being the only major addition to the roster, they are waiting for an excuse to change the status quo. An outfield of say Myers, Jennings, Kiermaier, Guyer, DeJesus, and Zobrist would be fine, but the Rays want something better and are hoping a player like Mikie Mahtook can make that possible.