In my recent FanGraphs article, in which I laud the signing of 2B Jeff Keppinger -- much to my own surprise -- a commenter observed something quite astute, that is, the Rays may be in a better position than ever to trade their center fielder, B.J. Upton
One other thought: I’ve still heard rumors that they’re listening on B.J. Upton. I’m not sure that’s the best idea, but if they did that, now they could use Joyce-Jennings-Zobrist as their primary outfield. In that scenario, Maddon could pick two of Rodriguez, Keppinger, and Brignac to start in the infield depending on the opposing pitchers handedness and tendencies.
Indeed, the recent Jeff Keppinger signing -- a small signing at the most -- may actually put the Tampa Bay Rays in the optimal position to move on without their valuable center fielder.
I have said recently that B.J. Upton is far more valuable than we fans tend to think he is (See: B.J. Upton: The Tampa Bay Rays' Sneaky Valuable Outfielder), but that does not mean he should be untouchable. It means he is worth keeping at the right price -- which, for the Rays, is under $10M (so 2012 will be his final year with the club unless he signs a Ben Zobrist / Evan Longoria-like extension).
Anyway, there a indeed trade partners out there. One such potential partner is the Washington Nationals, who just missed out on the Prince Fielder derby. That means they may very well be still hungry for a hitter without a free agent to fit. If the Miami Marlins or the Nationals also miss out on Cuban defector CF Yoenis Cespedes (who may be leaning towards the Chicago Cubs), maybe even more suitors come to bear.
This could be the time for B.J. Upton to bring the Rays a haul to compliment their already stellar pitching staff and defense, and if that is indeed the case, the Rays have their bases covered -- covered with cheap infielders.
The Rays, since beginning their new and sabermetrically-infused era, have been pioneers in the world of platooning. Not only do they carefully plot out their bullpen usage, but they also are meticulous with their defensive shifts, their handedness platoons, and even their GB/FB platoons*.
*GB/FB platoons: In Tom Tango's seminal book aptly named The Book, he and his co-authors clearly demonstrate how certain hitters excel at facing ground ball pitchers, while others can dominate fly ball pitchers. However, they also discovered that nobody was using these splits to their advantage -- enter Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and the Rays.
So the Rays have a peculiar situation -- that of having five infielders:
1) Ben Zobrist: Hits everyone really, really well; dominates defensively at 2B and RF. He has gold glove fielding talents to back up his superb hitting and base-running talent. Easily one of the league's most valuable assets when also considering contract.
2) Sean Rodriguez: Hits left-handed pitchers and fly ball pitchers well; can excel at 2B and pass at SS.
3) Jeff Keppinger: Hits left-handed pitchers and neutral GB/FB pitchers well; can pass at 2B and maybe SS.
4) Reid Brignac: Hits righty pitchers and ground ball pitchers enough -- only because he can dominate defensively at SS.
5) Elliot Johnson: Has not shown an ability to hit in the majors yet, but can field SS and 2B well-to-superbly.
So, we know Ben Zobrist will get his playing time -- 600 PAs and no less unless the Rays cannot help it. But the rest of these guys either need playing time or will have to go down to Durham to start the season (and doing that would expose at least a few of them to being snatched by another team).
The Rays could easily cram the bench with infielders and hope Johnson or Brignac passes through the waiver wire and lands safely in Durham -- and that is probably what they are planning for right now. They are now also doubly prepared for moving Ben Zobrist to right field full-time.
If Upton does indeed depart, then Desmond Jennings takes center field full time, Matt Joyce moves to left field, and the four remaining infielders get used more efficiently -- like this:
C: no change
1B: no change
2B: Sean Rodriguez (Keppinger or Johnson if it's a ground ball pitcher)
SS: Reid Brignac
3B: no change
LF: Matt Joyce
CF: no change
RF: Ben Zobrist
UT: Elliot Johnson (defensive replacement for Keppinger and pinch runner for whoever)
C: no change
1B: no change
2B: Jeff Keppinger
SS: Sean Rodriguez
3B: no change
LF: Brandon Guyer
CF: no change
RF: Ben Zobrist (can cycle in to 2B, LF and CF to give guys rest or to give Sam Fuld a chance to stretch his stallion legs)
UT: Elliot Johnson
From this basic construct, Joe Maddon can go a delightful myriad of new ways. He can rest Brignac against fly ball extremists and maybe give him a chance against ground ball lefties. Maybe he cycles Keppinger in at shortstop so Rodriguez gets comfortable with the position full time.
And if, say, Rodriguez finds the power stroke that made him so fearsome in the minors, Maddon can give him a shot against righties full-time -- ground ball and fly ball righties alike.
With Upton, however, we have a serious logjam and at least one player needs to go down, likely two. Maybe the Rays swing a trade for Rodriguez or Brignac? With Tim Beckham and Hak-Ju Lee -- a pair of top prospect shortstops -- surging up through the system, maybe the redundant players are in the infield, not the outfield.
Who knows? But one this is certain: No matter what happens now, at least the Rays have a plethora of options.
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