The Tampa Bay Rays lost a big chunk of who they are on Tuesday when All-Star and franchise keystone 3B Evan Longoria went down with a torn hamstring. The 26-year-old master defender and slugger extraordinaire leaves behind a Lake Okeechobee-sized hole in production. The Rays will likely fill that hole internally -- unless the mediocre likes of 3B Sean Burroughs or some other waiver-wire player appeals to them -- and that will be a feat hard to accomplish. But they have done it before.
At the beginning of the 2011 season, the Rays lost DH Manny Ramirez to a failed drug test and subsequent retirement. With OF Desmond Jennings still working his way through the minor leagues, the Rays opted to give OF Sam Fuld a massive chunk of playing time. The ceiling for Sam Fuld's talent level is probably around fringe starter, but he's a fourth outfielder on any typical day. His defense -- the toughest element to quantify about him -- is his strongest asset, and that's what makes it unclear as to how valuable he really is.
In theory, if Fuld's defense is magnificent, he could potentially be an above average starter, a three-win player according to FanGraph's wins above replacement calculations. If his defense is great and his hitting is uninspired, then he could still be a solid every day starter. There are no advanced defensive numbers for minor leaguers, so the only way to get a true, honest, mathematic feel for Fuld's defensive ability is to make him a starter. For three years.
That's just not practical, so guys like Fuld -- strong defenders with limited hitting ability -- must live on the bench until an emergency asks them for more. Fortunately for the Rays, Fuld played hot for a month when no other man in the lineup seemed capable of hitting. He went ice-cold when the rest of the lineup heated up, and then, for the dramatic finish, the team was ready to call up Desmond Jennings.
With Longoria down 4-8 weeks, the Rays need another Sam Fuld -- a fringe player who gets hot at the right time. Who can fit that mold?
Yes, the much-reviled infielder Elliot Johnson can indeed be a key cog in the Rays month of May. At the major league level, Johnson has been anything but inspired with a bat in his hands. Many Rays fans have come to loathe plate appearances from Johnson and view him as the 25th man on the 25-man roster, the man always at risk of getting DFA'd during a roster move.
Since 2008, Johnson has hit .186/.254/.304 with 4 home runs in the majors. But if 231 plate appearances is enough to evaluate a player's hitting ability, then the Los Angeles Angels need a new first baseman because Albert Pujols is broken. The legendary slugger has a .547 OPS over his first 100 PA. Even if he hits a .900 OPS over the next 129 plate appearances, he will still only have a .744 OPS through 231 PA -- well beneath the league average for first basemen.
So Johnson's MLB numbers look bad, but they are also very incomplete. Johnson is a strong defender -- much like Fuld -- and his minor league hitting numbers prove almost indistinguishable from Fuld's:
|AAA (4 seasons)||AAA||230||949||4||26||.273||.368||.400||.768|
|AAA (5 seasons)||AAA||410||1701||12||20||.261||.325||.416||.741|
Can he be the second coming of Fuld, a suitable replacement for Longoria in a time of great need? Very possibly. In the above table, we can see Fuld (the first set of numbers) had much better place discipline (.368 OBP) and much less power (only 4 home runs per 500 PA) than Johnson. It does not render them equal hitters, but near-equal.
Considering Johnson plays elite defense in the infield, his numbers are ratehr impressive. Most defensive specialists hit for almost no power, but Johnson is capable of running into a few balls. Johnson may not be an ideal replacement for Longoria -- and he may not get hot like Fuld did -- but the Rays lineup is already pretty hot with RF Matt Joyce, DH Luke Scott and 1B Carlos Pena all crushing the ball.
The Rays need to make up for Evan Longoria's absence, and though Elliot Johnson cannot do that by himself, he can certainly start them in the right direction.
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