Casey Kotchman has been hitting well this year and has gradually moved up in the batting order, starting out at 7th and 8th, now dancing around 5th and 6th. But many analysts, especially those outside of the Rays' circle of fans, do not think this new Magic of Kotch is the real deal. Just the way Sam Fuld started hot and got cold, Casey Kotchman's 2011 numbers suggest he's more shadow than substance.
Since returning from his brief ankle injury, Casey Kotchman's last 75 plate appearances have produced a .294/.360/.412 slash, or a .772 OPS (on-base plus slugging). His season OPS, a respectable .851, would be a career high if he could sustain it. The problem is: He's very unlikely to sustain it.
His latest slash comes with a slightly worse BABIP (batting average on balls in play), a statistic that generally measures luck. His 2011 BABIP, .360ish, is almost 100 points higher than his career rate. Over the last stretch of games though, he's sported a .330ish BABIP.
The troubling part of this whole endeavor: The Rays front office knows about BABIP, knows that Kotchman is riding an unsustainable wave of good luck, but they continue to buy into it. What gives? Well, part of the issue may be a lack of a suitable replacement.
In Triple-A right now, the Rays have two possible candidates to replace Casey Kotchman (maybe more, assuming Johnny Damon can handle first base). The first is recently deposed Dan Johnson, who was the starting first baseman to begin the season.
Johnson's 2011 campaign in the majors was forgettable, and he never quite looked like his usual, patient and powerful self. After rejoining Durham in the minors, his problems continued, and he sported a sub-.700 OPS through the first several dozen PAs. Now, though, he's begun to return to form a little. Since the beginning of June, he's hit a .741 OPS -- and a .893 OPS with 2 homers and 5 walks over the last 5 games.
For Johnson to stand a chance at the MLB level, he need to OPS well over .800 in Durham. At this point, he's hardly putting pressure on Kotchman.
The Rays also have former Cubs farmhand Russ Canzler, who -- like Johnson -- plays both third base and first. Canzler is in his first season at Triple-A, but sports a comfortable 8 home runs and an .878 OPS (good for 22% above league average, per wOBA+). The problem here is almost the same as with Kotchman: Canzler is sporting a career-high BABIP.
A couple of things influence BABIP: luck (as mentioned before), speed, hitting style, and so on. All except for luck, these traits do not typically change season-to-season -- or at least very much. Canzler is now sporting a .378 BABIP, way higher than his career norm. Bringing him up now would be essentially inciting the same risk Casey Kotchman engenders.
So what to do? The Rays could conceivably trade for a bat -- something they have alluded to themselves -- or they could give Johnny Damon a shot at first base and bring Brandon Guyer or Desmond Jennings into the outfield, but this still leaves an opening at DH, where Kotchman's defensive talents would disappear and Justin Ruggiano or Sam Fuld would prove rather insufficient.
The plan for now, as it would appear, is to keep gambling on the Kotch. Being only 28 years old, there is a chance the Rays could trade Kotchman for a half-year rental slugger, or they could just take their lumps until Dan Johnson or Russ Canzler begin tearing AAA apart. If that never happens, then Rays fans may have to endure the Magic of Kotch long after it runs dry.