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Tampa Bay Rays Mailbag: Who Will Be in the 2018 Infield?

By Robbie Knopf
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Welcome back to the RCG Mailbag, where we take some of those burning Tampa Bay Rays questions on your mind and attempt to give you some answers.

The easiest way to submit a question is to fill out this Google form. Otherwise, you can comment on any of our posts here or on Facebook, email us at rayscoloredglasses at gmail dot com, or tweet me @RobbieKnopf. If you could say “for the mailbag,” that would make things especially easy. This is our first one of these in a while, and the question is a good one.

Jeremy asks: Especially in light of everything happening with Evan Longoria, Nick Franklin, Tim Beckham, and Logan Forsythe, who will compose the Tampa Bay Rays’ infield in 2018?

Jeremy’s question could be answered in two different ways. The first is what the Rays are hoping will happen while the second is what is likely to occur. Let’s start with that dream scenario where every prospect pans out before moving onto the more realistic possibility.

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At first base, the expectation is certainly that Casey Gillaspie will be manning the position by that point. Richie Shaffer is another player to mention, but his whiff-heavy tendency and his pitch recognition issues put his future in jeopardy. Maybe in dreamworld he turns in a season or two as a slugger who hits 30 homers while hitting .220 and striking out a lot, but Gillaspie is the guy for the future. He doesn’t have the biggest upside, but the Rays would love a high-OBP player who hits 25 homers a year.

Third base is the easiest position to talk about: pending something drastic, it will be Evan Longoria. Longoria’s injuries in 2011 and 2012 have to prompt concern about what he will be like when he reaches his thirties, but the Rays are counting on him turning in several more strong seasons before he really starts slowing down. Longoria has a chance to be a Hall of Fame third baseman, and the best-case scenario has him continuing to be among the best at the hot corner in 2018.

Now to the middle infield, where everything is a mess. There are so many players to talk about, and that is even after writing off Beckham and Forsythe from the start. The notable players are Daniel Robertson, Willy Adames, Ryan Brett, Franklin, Andrew Velazquez, Kean Wong, and maybe even Hak-Ju Lee.

When we are talking about the best-case scenario, though, the solution isn’t so complicated: the Tampa Bay Rays will want the two highest-upside players out there having reached their potential. Those guys are Robertson and Adames. Let’s say that Robertson is the guy at shortstop (although that’s pretty arbitrary) because he played a season or two with Brett as his double play partner at second base.

The question is only about the infield, but given that the other guys will make an impact in alternate capacities, let’s talk about all of the dream scenario Rays position players in 2018.

Catchers: Justin O’Conner, Luke Maile (you can definitely make the case for Curt Casali, but either way, Nick Ciuffo would be almost ready)

Infielders: Evan Longoria (3B), Daniel Robertson (SS), Willy Adames (2B), Casey Gillaspie (1B), Ryan Brett, Nick Franklin

Outfielders: Tyler Goeddel (LF), Kevin Kiermaier (CF), Steven Souza (RF), Andrew Velazquez, Mikie Mahtook

In this scenario, there would is good chance that at least one of Franklin and Brett would be traded, but this team would certainly be fun if they kept them. To discuss the bench players for a second, Brett and Mahtook could split time at DH (Brett playing more), with both of them occasionally getting time in the field when Longoria or Goeddel gets a half-day off or when Kiermaier sits against a tough lefty. Velazquez will be a super-utility player while Franklin will be a true backup.

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Now, to the more realistic scenario (which still won’t happen because we’re not factoring in trades). Gillaspie is still the first baseman, but he’s playing a good amount of DH because his fielding isn’t so great. He is alright, but his power never developed entirely and the Rays are hoping that they can find a better hitter to replace him. Longoria is still at third, but he is no longer a great defender and is seeing some DH time and the occasional DL stint. He’s still a very good player, but the Rays know that they need to have depth behind him.

In the middle infield, meanwhile, the Rays face a quandary. Robertson hits enough but doesn’t look good at shortstop, so he has the option of moving off to second base. However, Ryan Brett is already doing a solid job there and then there would be no one to play shortstop. Adames looks fine, but is neither a great defender at short nor a good enough hitter to start at a corner spot.

With that in mind, Robertson will end up at short, but while he will be a good hitter for the position, he will give some of his value back on defense. Brett will be alongside him as a league-average second baseman while Adames will eventually see time all over the infield, especially when Longoria goes down. With that in mind, here are the position players on the realistic Rays roster for 2018.

Catchers: Justin O’Conner (not hitting much), Curt Casali

Infielders: Evan Longoria (3B), Daniel Robertson (SS), Ryan Brett (2B), Casey Gillaspie (1B), Tim Beckham, lefty bench bat

Outfielders: Nick Franklin (LF), Kevin Kiermaier (CF), Steven Souza (RF), Mikie Mahtook, Brandon Guyer

On this roster, Franklin is platooning with Mahtook while Guyer replaces Kiermaier often but certainly not always against lefties. Mahtook would play center when Kiermaier sits. A guy like Velazquez could come up and push Franklin to the bench. Beckham, meanwhile, would be seeing time primarily at the infield corners along with the left-handed first baseman/DH that the Rays would sign or acquire. Adames would be at Triple-A still trying to prove himself.

Obviously a couple of my choices are a little controversial–for example, Goeddel and Franklin in left field on the two rosters–but plenty is up in the air when we are talking about three years out. Of course, the Rays might acquire yet another outfielder when they trade a pitcher, and they probably will not want such a right-handed lineup. In any event, the best-case scenario lineup looks quite interesting while the realistic one still prompts optimism for an improved offense.

Am I totally off with my picks? Do you agree with me? Should I do another one of these talking about potential pitchers for 2018? Head to the comments, and hopefully we can have a nice discussion.

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