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Tampa Bay Rays: Left Field Options

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For eight years, from 2003 to 2010, the Rays wrote Carl Crawford’s name into the lineup card in left field, hitting second in the batting order. Sadly, Crawford left the Rays in 2011, cashing in as so many other have. Since then, the Rays have struggled to find a LF whose talents comes close to what Crawford provided the Rays with. They have tried to fill the gap with other players, such as Matt Joyce and David DeJesus, but none have come close to Crawford’s production. Once again, the team  is searching for the answer in LF going into the 2016 season.

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Ideally, a healthy

Desmond Jennings

would become the answer in 2016 and provide the same kind of production the Rays came to expect from Crawford. We know he has the talent, since he was seen as the second coming of Crawford when he joined the Rays in 2012. His skill set of above-average defensive abilities and a rare combination of speed and power seemed to make it a match.

Unfortunately, his hitting hasn’t developed as expected, and health has slowed down his overall production. His last year with the Rays, Crawford managed a .307/.356/.495 line while adding 62 extra-base hits and 47 SB. Over his 162 game average in the majors, Jennings has a .249/.327/.398 line with 52 extra-base hits and 30 SB. The match is so close, yet so far.

One has to wonder if the Rays expectations for Jennings were too high, or whether injuries slowed him down enough to impact his performance? We can’t answer that, but we do know he is getting older and has been injured often of late.

When Jennings isn’t playing, the next in line seems to be Brandon Guyer. Guyer came over from the Cubs in the 2011 Matt Garza/Chris Archer trade. Like Jennings, he’s had injury issues, but in 2015 he got into 128 games and put up a good-looking .263/.359/.413 slash line. He’s an average fielder and plays with some grit, leading the Rays in being hit by pitches last year. However, Guyer is better suited as a fourth outfielder or platoon player since he hits LHP at a .272/.362/.439 clip.

Sep 29, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Mikie Mahtook (27) is congratulated by Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Tim Beckham (1) as he hits a solo home run during the third inning against the Miami Marlins at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If Guyer doesn’t get the playing time, the next candidate is Mikie Mathook, who has had an up and down minor league career. When he finally got a chance to play for the Rays in 2015, he showed off a surprisingly well-rounded game, both offensively and defensively. In 41 games with the Rays he had a .295/.351/.619 slash line with a whopping 9 HR in only 115 PA.

To put Mahtook’s 2015 numbers into perspective, they would result in 36 HR, 60 extra-base hits, and 16 SB over a full season of AB. Maybe most impressive of all was the fact that he hit .294 vs LHP and .297 vs RHP, making him an attractive DH option if and when the need arises. Overall, his 2015 performance has to be intriguing to the Rays and makes him an automatic candidate for more playing time in 2016.

The outlier in LF is Logan Morrison, although we don’t expect him to get much playing time in LF – if any. Obtained in the Nate Karns deal with Seattle, he has legitimate left-handed power and should be in the lineup most of the time, but primarily as a1B/DH. He does have 254 games in the OF over his MLB career, and while he is no Jennings, Guyer, or Mahtook, he won’t be too embarrassing to play in LF.

The minor league system offers some intriguing help. Both Taylor Motter and Joey Rickard could get some playing time if and when required. The former has a significant power and speed combination and Rickard showed us enough in terms of extra-base hits (38 in 398 AB) to indicate gap-to-gap power. He may become helpful as a top of the order as his best tool is his hitting ability and speed (23 SB in 2015).

Of course, there are always free agents to be signed or players to be obtained through trades. The free agent market hasn’t been a major source of acquisition for low-budget Rays, but trades are a more likely and possible source of improvement. Taking a look through MLB, a possible trading partner might be Joe Maddon’s Chicago Cubs. They are looking to improve their pitching – particularly their pen – and have many intriguing outfielders.

For example, someone like Jorge Soler who will make less than $5 million through 2020 would be an attractive addition for the Rays. The return could include some pitching help that Maddon knows extremely well and that he’d be likely to trust in the toughest of situations. Food for thought, but it’s one of a multitude of options available to the Rays this offseason.

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To sum it up, the Rays seem to be rolling the dice when it comes to left field at the moment. Is Desmond Jennings going to break out? Is Brandon Guyer more than a role player? Can Mikie Mahtook build on his impressive brief appearance in 2015?

That route is fine as the talent is within the organization to get decent production out of LF, but if they decide to go through the trade route, they may finally find a replacement that produces to the same caliber as Carl Crawford once did  for the Rays. Time will tell which route the team settles on, but whichever one they settle on, they should enjoy a productive season from their left-fielders, even if it does fall short of the Crawford standard.

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