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Tampa Bay Rays: Addressing the Middle Infield Situation

By Robbie Knopf
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The Tampa Bay Rays’ latest roster moves were sending down RHP Preston Guilmet, putting James Loney on the DL with a broken finger, and calling up both Tim Beckham and Jake Elmore. With Asdrubal Cabrera and Steven Souza Jr. dealing with a mild groin strain and a wrist sprain respectively, both Beckham and Elmore are in the lineup as the Rays prepare to take on the Seattle Mariners. However, especially once everyone returns, playing time will be far from simple for the Rays on the middle infield.

Jeremy, one of our readers, asked a question, and while I had already been planning to write a piece along these lines, here is what he asked.

With Beckham now out of options, Ryan Brett coming back, Logan Forsythe playing out of his mind, Cabrera playing solid on D, struggling at the plate, Franklin doesn’t look ready yet. What is happening, or do you believe happens to address this? Trade? Demotion(s)? In 7 starts this year at SS, Beckham had no errors, one could make an argument he is our best option defensively and offensively.

To clarify right off the bat, Ryan Brett is not in the mix for the Rays right now. His plate discipline was iffy at Double-A, and he has a grand total of 33 Triple-A plate appearances under his belt. When his rehab assignment ends, he will be optioned to Triple-A Durham. If he plays well there for a few months, then we can talk about him as a candidate for a major league role.

Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the Rays’ current situation. For right now, the Rays could go with an infield alignment of Evan Longoria at third (of course), Tim Beckham at shortstop, Nick Franklin at second base, and Logan Forsythe at first base. However, once Cabrera comes back, let alone Loney, either Beckham or Franklin will need to benched for each game. The questions that come to mind for me are 1) Is Beckham with the Rays to stay this time? and 2) If so, why did the Rays demote him?

Asdrubal Cabrera looks everything like the Rays’ best defensive shortstop, but it also seems pretty clear that Beckham is ahead of Franklin. Both Beckham and Franklin were moved from shortstop to second base as prospects, but Beckham was moved because his double play partner was Hak-Ju Lee while Franklin was moved more because he was having issues at short.

Franklin may have somewhat better range than Beckham, but Beckham has a much stronger arm. That would obviously lead Franklin to commit more throwing errors, but it may also cause more fielding errors because Franklin needs to worry more about his footwork even before the ball comes to him. Franklin can be a halfway decent shortstop, but if Beckham is on the team, we have to think that Franklin would be considered a worse defensive option at this point.

At the plate, however, Franklin is the guy that the Rays like more, especially against right-handed pitching and maybe even against lefties. That was part of the reason why Beckham was sent down instead of Franklin. Beckham has 5 home runs, but he also has just a .224 average and a .266 on-base percentage. He is drawing few walks and striking out like crazy, 30.9% of his plate appearances. He has done nothing against right-handed pitching, hitting to just a .182/.260/.341 line, and he has a 17-1 strikeout to walk ratio versus the lefties against whom he is supposed to be working good at-bats.

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However, let’s not obsess with the small sample size. Nick Franklin has a much better Triple-A track record than Beckham, and the same is true in the minors as a whole. We are talking about a player in Franklin who managed an OPS better than Beckham at every full-season minor league level. Franklin had the fortune of playing in some more hitter-friendly leagues, but don’t dismiss the fact that he hit to a .284/.362/.450 line versus Beckham’s .262/.332/.381 mark as just a fluke. The fact that Franklin was a better regarded prospect in the last three years where he qualified (2011 to 2013) tells us otherwise.

Franklin has also actually shown that he can a solid starting big league infielder for the better part of a season, hitting to a .225/.303/.382 line (96 OPS+) with 12 homers and 6 stolen bases in 412 PA’s. It is another small sample size, but if you want to tout Beckham’s 2015 numbers, Franklin’s run of relative success lasted for four times the number of plate appearances and looks a little bit more sustainable because he actually drew some walks. Franklin has struggled since then, but we are talking about a grand total of 53 major league PA’s in the last two years.

None of this is saying that Franklin can be better than Logan Forsythe has been for the Rays this season, but if it’s Franklin versus Beckham, Franklin has a clear edge. Taking another angle, maybe we can say that if Asdrubal Cabrera hits his stride, Beckham should stay over Franklin because he has adjusted better to playing off the bench. If Franklin is more talented, why not get him regular playing time at Triple-A? However, Beckham has only shown himself in another small sample, and if the Rays demoted Beckham before, why would they demote Franklin the next time?

The good news for the Rays is that now they have additional time to watch Franklin and Beckham. While Loney is out, at least one of them will play in each of the Rays’ games, and if Beckham vastly outplays Franklin, presumably Franklin will be sent down. However, if the competition is close, Franklin has the better track record and will receive the benefit of the doubt. He has done little for the Rays so far, but they expect plenty more exciting things to come from him in the future. They believe that he will be the better long-term player.

Now let’s talk about the Asdrubal Cabrera situation and tie that into this discussion. Cabrera is obviously playing poorly, hitting to a .214/.265/.340 line, but the Rays won’t just give up on him quite yet. He has looked good defensively and he managed a 92 OPS+ in seven of the last eight seasons. In the one other year, he was still at 89. If Cabrera gets back to that level of production, he will be an above-average starting shortstop. With that in mind, the Rays will give him chances until they no longer have a choice.

Cabrera has looked a little weak against left-handed pitching, so we have to expect that he will be sat against them more often. While Beckham is on the team, he will be the one seeing more time at shortstop replacing Cabrera, and given that Franklin is worse against righty pitching, that especially makes sense. However, Franklin could still see time against righties when James Loney or Kevin Kiermaier gets a day off, and the simple fact is that there are not very many lefty starters in baseball.

The Rays have faced an average of just 50.6 left-handed pitchers per season since 2010, and Franklin provides more than Beckham in the other 111.4 per games. The Rays believe that he can be an above-average hitter against right-handed pitching, and he has the versatility to replace players all over the field. If Franklin isn’t getting enough at-bats off the bench, all the Rays need to do is work him out in the outfield, where he has already has a little bit of experience.

We will see how Tim Beckham and Nick Franklin perform for the Tampa Bay Rays in the coming days and weeks, but the most likely outcome when everyone is healthy is Asdrubal Cabrera and Franklin sticking around while Beckham gets demoted. A middle infield mix of Cabrera, Franklin, and Logan Forsythe is what the Rays wanted all along, and other than Forsythe starting over Franklin, that is what they are working towards.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: Rotation Prognosis for 2015 and 2016

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