After two years of mediocrity to begin his professional career, the Tampa Bay Rays still had enough confidence in Mikie Mahtook to send him to Triple-A for his third season in 2014. He was at a critical juncture in his career–critics looked at him and believed that he didn’t have the tools to be successful in the major leagues. The doubters were silenced, however, as Mahtook spent the season rewarding the Rays’ trust on his way to a a breakout.
Mahtook hit to a .292/.362/.458 line with 33 doubles, 12 homers, and 18 stolen bases, ranking among the team’s leaders in nearly every offensive category. Yet because he found himself on a Rays team filled with outfield depth, he was set to head back to Durham for a second year. Some thought that he should have gotten a longer look in the spring, but it was clear from the start that his chances of making the team were negligible. Then a couple of injuries happened, and Mahtook was promoted to the Rays.
The Tampa Bay Rays already have two platoon players who are excellent at hitting left-handed pitching, Brandon Guyer and Logan Forsythe, and they hope that Tim Beckham can be a third. As Mahtook comes to the big leagues, the Rays can say with conviction that he is on par with Guyer and Forsythe and just maybe better. Last season with the Durham Bulls, Mahtook hit to an insane .380/.443/.595 line against lefties, and the Rays will try to get as much use out of that as they can.
Against left-handed pitching, Mahtook’s path to playing time is relatively straightforward: the Rays can sit Kevin Kiermaier. The Rays could have an alignment of Mahtook, Desmond Jennings, and Steven Souza from left to right in their outfield with Brandon Guyer at DH, and that likely gives them a stronger lineup against southpaws then their Opening Day roster would have given them.
Finding Mahtook at-bats against righties, though, is more tricky. He could rest the Rays’ outfielders and replace David DeJesus at DH, but that certainly won’t net him regular at-bats. The most questionable spot in the Rays’ lineup is in the form of another recent promotion from Triple-A Durham, first baseman Allan Dykstra, but Mahtook doesn’t play first base.
One thing the Rays could do, though, is to move Steven Souza to first base. We saw the Rays play Wil Myers at first base last year, and Souza also saw limited time there in spring training. Souza also has 117 career minor league games at the position, albeit none since 2011. Do the Rays think enough of Mahtook that they would put Souza in an uncomfortable position?
It is hard to believe that the Rays will play Souza more than a couple of times at first base if he isn’t super comfortable at the position. Mahtook didn’t hit righties particularly well even in his breakout year at Durham, managing a .260/.332/.411 line, and the Rays won’t be bending over backwards to get him in the lineup. What could be more interesting is if the Rays want to play Kiermaier against lefties and accomplish that by shifting Souza to first and benching Beckham.
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No matter how many at-bats he will get in the end, though, we can say for certain that Mikie Mahtook can contribute to the Rays immediately. He is unlikely to start tonight against the Marlins right-hander Dan Haren, but he will likely pinch-hit at some point, and we may actually see him pinch-hit several times in the next few weeks. The appeal of using him against lefties is clear, and even if he isn’t an ideal option against right-handed pitching, the Rays could still easily use him to replace guys like Forsythe, Beckham, and Rene Rivera against them.
The Tampa Bay Rays’ run of injuries has been extremely frustrating, but the most exciting aspect is that players like Nate Karns, Matt Andriese, and Mikie Mahtook are getting chances to prove themselves at the major league level. It will be exhilarating for Mahtook to spend time in the big leagues for the first time in his career, and the hope is that he will return to the minor leagues even more motivated as he hopes to get back.