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Are the Tampa Bay Rays Right To Trust Logan Forsythe?

By Robbie Knopf
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When the Tampa Bay Rays decided to designate Sean Rodriguez, it implied a certain amount of trust in their remaining right-handed backup infielders. Even though Rodriguez had only one year left under team control, he had been a solid player for the Rays the past two years and they had no reason to move him unless they believed they no longer needed him.

The good news about righty-hitting utility players is that they are not too difficult to find. The Rays could easily bring a couple of players into camp and be reasonably confident with whoever won a big league job. Usually, though, you head to the market after dealing your worst utilityman from the previous season. That player appears to be not Rodriguez, but Logan Forsythe. Were the Rays right to trade Rodriguez when he has been so clearly better than Forsythe the last two years?

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The Rays acquired Logan Forsythe as a rebound candidate after he hit to just a .214/.281/.332 line (77 OPS+) in 243 plate appearances for the San Diego Padres in 2013. He had been a quite productive player the previous season, hitting to a .273/.343/.390 line (107 OPS+) in 350 PA’s, and planar fasciitis was one reason that his 2013 was so tough. The Rays believed that he could be a force against left-handed pitching and that there was an outside chance work his way into contention for their starting second base job. However, when the dust cleared in 2014, Forsythe had just a .223/.287/.329 line, amounting to the same 77 OPS+ he had managed the year before.

The fact that Forsythe didn’t improve at all by OPS+ certainly challenges the notion that he can be a strong big league bench player. He has now struggled the last two years and even three of the last four, with his strong 2012 being the only reason for optimism. Obscured in Forsythe’s identical OPS+, though, were a couple of improvements that Forsythe made this season for the Rays.

In 2013, Forsythe didn’t hit against anyone, managing just a .651 OPS against lefties and a .591 mark against righties. 2014 saw his struggles against righties get even worse as he managed just a .536 OPS, but he was actually rock-solid against left-handed pitching, managing a .708 mark. Forsythe has had a strong track record against lefties in his career, and 2014 saw him get back to that after a one-year hiatus. The Rays upped his proportion of plate appearances against lefties from 35.3% to 46.4%, and if they continue increasing that, Forsythe’s numbers should look much better.

Of course, that solution leads to another problem: who will replace Forsythe’s at-bats against right-handed pitching, especially with Rodriguez gone? Rodriguez and Forsythe actually made just 299 plate appearances against righties combined, and Nick Franklin should be able to cover that all by himself. It looks Franklin will get a chance to be a major part of the Rays’ roster next season, and while he does have his concerns against lefties, we have reason to believe that he can hit well against right-handed pitching. If Franklin can play the way that he is capable, it should be no issue for the Rays to use Forsythe less against same-side pitchers.

The other thing worth talking about is Forsythe’s defense. We know how variable defensive statistics can be from year to year, and the different systems often disagree as well. In Forsythe’s case, both DRS and FRAA approved of his work across the board while UZR actually thought he did worse. Nevertheless, it makes sense that Forsythe would look better on defense with his foot recovered from planar fasciitis, and the Rays’ usage of Forsythe compared to Rodriguez also supports that point.

There were 49 games in which both Rodriguez and Forsythe were in the Rays’ lineup–Forsythe played the more difficult defensive position in 37 of those 49 contests. That is despite the fact that the Rays actually used Rodriguez at the more difficult position in 10 of the first 14 games that the two player played together, possibly as they assessed whether Forsythe was fully recovered from his injury.

A certain amount of that comes from the fact that Rodriguez may be more comfortable than Forsythe playing positions other than second base. However, the Rays had ample opportunities to DH Forsythe instead of Rodriguez and chose not to. After those first 14 games they played together, either Rodriguez or Forsythe was the designated hitter in the Rays’ lineup 11 times, with all but one of those going to Rodriguez.

The Tampa Bay Rays can believe in Logan Forsythe as their primary backup infielder because of his rebound against lefty pitching in 2014 and the progress he showed on defense. Having Nick Franklin around lessened the need to have both Rodriguez and Forsythe on the roster, and the Rays believe that Forsythe’s return to form will be more supported by the numbers when he takes the field next season.

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