Nick Franklin and Andrew Bellatti are joining the Tampa Bay Rays today, and after them, the Rays are expected to add only one more player to their active roster for September: outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who is currently rehabbing his fractured left hand. We know the story with Souza at this point–a lot of power and good speed, but also tons of strikeouts and questionable defense at times in the field. Where will Souza fit into the Rays’ lineup in September?
Souza has done a large part of his damage against left-handed pitching in his rookie year, hitting to a .217/.372/.449 line with 4 homers in 87 plate appearances against them compared to a .213/.280/.389 line with 11 homers in 261 PA’s against righties. It seems clear that he should see regular time against lefties, and it should not be difficult for the Rays to accomplish that.
Brandon Guyer has been starting against lefties all year for the Rays, and Richie Shaffer and Mikie Mahtook deserve opportunities as well. Kevin Kiermaier is no longer sitting against left-handers, but the Rays could make additional room by benching James Loney, who has poor results against them this season (.220/.254/.339 line) just like he has almost his entire career. Expect the Rays to often start Guyer, Souza, and Mahtook alongside Kiermaier, with two of them in the outfield and one of them at DH, and Shaffer would replace Loney at first base.
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Other players would also factor into that mix such as Tim Beckham and Joey Butler, but Butler has to be considered a much lower priority at this point while Beckham could occasionally replace one of the others or even Kiermaier if the opposing lefty is particularly tough. Guyer or Mahtook would likely move to centerfield when the Rays do that with Beckham either playing DH or second base with Logan Forsythe at first base. Loney won’t sit every time against lefties, but especially with the Rays moving out of contention, it makes sense to give the higher-upside players more chances.
Against right-handed pitching, meanwhile, there is certainly room for playing time for young players as Grady Sizemore and Daniel Nava currently man the corner spots. Each of them have done decently, managing an 87 OPS+ (13% below-average) each, but as the Rays look to figure out their team for next year, Souza will likely push one of them to the bench for most games. The Rays will also pick their spots to give Shaffer starts against righties, and Mahtook should also get at least a game or two to show what he can do against them.
The more overarching question, though, is where Steven Souza Jr. fits with the Tampa Bay Rays next season. As of right now, he still looks to be in their plans. Desmond Jennings will be back, but John Jaso and Sizemore will be free agents while Nava could be non-tendered (and isn’t a first-division starter in right field anyway). Shaffer can play right field now and could push Souza for the starting job there in spring training, but Shaffer has enough versatility that both of them could be everyday players if Jaso doesn’t re-sign.
We did see the Rays give up on Wil Myers last offseason, but Souza has looked a lot better this season than Myers did in 2014 and the Rays still have opportunities to give him. Maybe a terrible performance this month could alter the equation, but as of right now, the Rays are expecting Souza to be a major contributor to their efforts once he returns in September and from the outset of next season.