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Tampa Bay Rays: How Nava, (Eventually) Jennings Fit Into Lineup

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People have questioned how recent acquisition Daniel Nava and the currently rehabbing Desmond Jennings will fit into the Tampa Bay Rays’ plans for the remainder of the season. Now is a good time to attempt to figure that out. How will the addition of Nava and Jennings affect the Rays’ lineups against righty and lefty pitchers?

In every situation, the Tampa Bay Rays are assuming that Evan Longoria will be at third base, Asdrubal Cabrera (assuming he is healthy) will be at shortstop, and Logan Forsythe will be at second base. We also won’t discuss the fact that the Rays switch off Curt Casali and Rene Rivera at catcher. Beyond them, though, the Rays need to figure out who their best five players are for each game among James Loney, Kevin Kiermaier, John Jaso, Nava, Richie Shaffer, Brandon Guyer, Joey Butler, Grady Sizemore, and Tim Beckham. We will start in the scenario without Jennings back.

Against right-handed pitching, Kiermaier, Jaso, and (at least for now) Loney will play basically every game. Kiermaier hits righties well enough that his defense should unquestionably be in centerfield, Jaso is an excellent platoon bat at DH or in left field, and the Rays still believe that Loney will be fine at first base. That leaves right field and either first base or DH, and based on the Rays’ current lineup, their best two options appear to be Daniel Nava and Richie Shaffer.

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Nava was horrific in Boston earlier this year before going down with a thumb injury, but he has a great track record against right-handed pitching and looked better in his rehab stint in the minor leagues (.250/.357/.361 line). Sizemore is enough left-handed bat that the Rays would have to consider, but even as he has playing relatively well, he still has just a .226/.234/.419 line in 64 plate appearances with the Rays. There is no way to be terribly optimistic beyond the fact that he has just a .235/.290/.351 line (79 OPS+) in his last 549 big league PA’s. Sizemore can be a bench bat for now and the Rays will try to put him into situations where he can succeed, but there is no way that a team with designs on contending should be starting Sizemore for any period of time. In addition, Nava is a strong defender in either corner outfield spot while Sizemore is considered to be below-average.

Please don’t talk about Joey Butler as a starting option against right-handed pitching given his .153/.247/.181 line in his last 81 plate appearances. True, Nava endured a similarly tough stretch this season, but unlike Butler, Nava has plate discipline and a track record of succeeding in the major leagues. This looks everything like the league simply making the adjustments against Butler that have turned him back into the Quad-A player that he always was entering this year. His story was amazing while it lasted, but unfortunately, it’s over now.

Shaffer, on the other hand, has to be playing just about every day for it to be worthwhile that the Rays keep him on their roster. His 5 strikeouts among his 11 plate appearances remind us that he still has work to do, but it has been encouraging that he has worked good at-bats, drawn 3 walks, and hit an opposite-field home run. The Rays may elect to send him back at Triple-A when Jennings returns, but his promise is evident and they will give him chances to show that he can help their team now.

Shaffer is working on playing the outfield, but until he is ready, the Rays are set to have Loney at first base, Shaffer at DH, Jaso in left field, Kiermaier in center, and Nava in right field. Once Jennings is a factor again, though, he would take away at-bats from either Shaffer (with Jaso at DH) or Nava. The Rays will need to make a choice at that time about whether to demote Shaffer or to make him into a full-time starter with Nava moving to the bench. Another factor that needs to be talked about, though, is that the Rays would need to be comfortable playing Shaffer, Jennings, or Jaso in right field for Shaffer to keep seeing time.

Against lefties, Jaso and Loney should not be playing regularly. Jaso has simply never been considered good enough against them, and despite Loney’s perceived ability to face them, he now has just a .214/.267/.333 line against them this season after managing a similarly bad .256/.287/.314 line against such pitchers in 2014. His .299/.339/.390 triple-slash versus left-handers from 2013 is looking everything like a fluke. Kiermaier’s situation is more complicated–he has just a .244/.250/.333 line against them in his career, but his defense is so good that he should still be playing quite a bit anyway.

Nava is another platoon bat who doesn’t hit lefties while Sizemore seemingly can’t hit any lefty not named Zach Duke, so that leaves Guyer, Shaffer, Butler, and Beckham to fill the remaining spots. And once we eliminate Nava, Loney, Jaso, and Sizemore from consideration, the Rays literally can’t take the field without Kiermaier. Guyer could play center while Butler could man a corner outfield spot, but with Mikie Mahtook back at Triple-A, who could man the other?

Mahtook going back to Durham is clearly a sign that the Rays intend on playing Kiermaier more against lefties. Mahtook was hitting well, but the Rays may have decided that the defensive downgrade without Kiermaier in center was not worth the increased offense that Mahtook would provide. Given that Kiermaier will be in the lineup, the Rays are set to have him in center, Butler in left, Guyer in right field, Shaffer at first base or DH, and Beckham at either DH or second base (with Forsythe at first). If the Rays ever decide to play Loney, either Beckham would need to go to the bench or they would need to be comfortable with Shaffer in the outfield.

That really isn’t an ideal situation, but the presence of Jennings helps matters a lot against left-handed pitching. Butler would no longer need to be a factor as the Rays could have an outfield of Jennings, Kiermaier, and Guyer from left to right. They would also have the flexibility to play both Shaffer and Beckham or to take either one out in favor of Loney without keeping a player like Butler in the game.

In the short-term, Daniel Nava will give the Rays their starting right fielder against right-handed pitching. Afterwards, he will serve as insurance if the Rays don’t believe that Richie Shaffer is ready for an everyday role. Jennings, meanwhile, will let the Rays move either Nava or Shaffer to the bench against righties and eliminate Butler from consideration against lefties. There is a scenario where Nava and Shaffer are both hitting well as Jennings returns, but the Rays would be glad to be faced with the “predicament” of finding playing time for hot hitters.

Two final comments are regarding the roster move to accommodate Jennings and Jennings in general. Unless Shaffer doesn’t play well enough to stay in the major leagues, it looks like Butler will be optioned (if not DFA’d) to make room for Jennings. And finally, even if you aren’t Jennings’ biggest fan, it will be valuable to the Rays to be able to move one of their less proven options to the bench against righties, and the upgrade he will provide over Butler against lefties–and the additional flexibility he will provide–could prove crucial down the stretch.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: Putting Return for Kevin Jepsen in Context

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