Injuries are running rampant for the Tampa Bay Rays, with nine key players are currently on the disabled list: 3B Evan Longoria (torn hamstring), Closer Kyle Farnsworth (elbow), LF Desmond Jennings (lingering knee issue), OF Sam Fuld (wrist surgery), C Jose Lobaton (shoulder), C Robinson Chirinos (concussion), OF Brandon Guyer (shoulder), OF Brandon Allen (quad strain), SP Jeff Niemann with a broken fibula, after being hit by a line drive three days ago, and now infielder Will Rhymes may be on the DL as he passed out at first base after he was hit by a pitch that potentially broke his arm (video). On first look it may only be a contusion, which would keep Rhymes day-to-day. Center fielder B.J. Upton also spent most of the first six weeks injured, but has since returned to playing.
Based on this list, what should you notice about the Tampa Bay Rays? First, this team is having some terrible luck. Second, it's impressive how competitive the Rays have been this season.
As our Rays affiliate DRaysBay noted yesterday, "How many teams are able to suffer an injury to their best player, their closer, one of their starters, many of their best bench options, and their lead off hitter, yet still stay competitive?" The answer is not many. Tampa Bay, who just swept the Blue Jays on the road - despite a 4-6 slide over the last ten games - currently stand tied atop the American League East.
Additionally, the Rays are 8th overall this season in runs scored (169) and 9th in On Base Percentage (.330). Much of this is thanks to significant slugging from Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Luke Scott, and the now injury plagued Evan Longoria - leading the Rays to 7th overall in SLG (.416).
The Rays have had the depth to shuffle the roster and field a competitive team, but what is the outlook, given these injured players? What can the Rays do internally to fill the gap? Let's break it down by sections of the field:
Starting Pitching: To much chagrin of the fan base, the Rays traded none of their pitching depth to start the season. The management then converted Wade Davis to a reliever and upped his velocity back to a competitive speed, and now the injury to Jeff Niemann won't make the Rays bat an eye. Alex Cobb is seasoned as a call up and will be prepared to start in the 5th slot. He even may eat more innings than Niemann, who has recently lost his effectiveness after 75 pitches.
Outfield: Matt Joyce has shifted to left field from right, picking up Desmond Jennings slot, and second baseman Ben Zobrist has dropped back to fill the void in right. If additional depth is needed, much of the roster can also shift to the outfield on any given day, and Brandon Guyer had been called up from AAA to fill the bench. No worries.
Unfortunately, Guyer is also on the DL with a left shoulder strain, so the Rays made an OF swap. Yesterday the front office made a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, acquiring Rich Thompson - a 33 year old AAA outfielder with tons of speed, a .307 batting average, and a great story - but only one unsuccessful major league at bat to his name. He'll run the basepads well (forcing a balk from the Red Sox last night while pinch running on second), and could even pick up his first major league hit!
Bullpen: The Rays worked their magic on Fernando Rodney and made him into the closer Kyle Farnsworth would have been. Shifting to the left side of the mound has made Rodney a dominant 9th inning man, and hasn't blown a save this season. When Farnsworth returns the bullpen will only be stronger; there is nothing to worry about here.
Catching: Maybe we should be worried, but the Rays catching is based on the defense and cerebral genius of Jose Molina. He spent a few years as a back up in Toronto, so his legs have been fresh enough to play often. He is aging, though, and a liability for injury or fatigue. Next on the roster is Chris Gimenez, and with the other two major league read catchers injured, the buck stops there. (For those keeping score at home, AAA catcher Nevin Ashley is also on the DL). The situation is safe for now, but the Rays should have their eyes on the trade market - just in case. An interesting trade partner could be the Red Sox to bring back last year's lead catcher Kelly Shoppach who left in free agency. Boston has Ryan Lavarnway in the wings, so their team would not take a significant hit. Perhaps the Rays could offer a relief pitcher when Farnsworth returns... Just brainstorming.
First Base: Lets take a moment and reflect on the glory of having Carlos Pena back in a Rays uniform. 5 home runs, .364 OBP, stellar defense, we share the same birthday (today, May 17!). What else needs said here? The Rays also have decent depth considering they lost all 3 first baseman on the depth chart after last season. Waiting in AAA are Leslie Anderson, who is batting .336 through 34 games, and upside players Juan Miranda and Matt Mangini.
The rest of the infield: Excluding first base, the Rays infield is a mess. Without Evan Longoria in the lineup, and with Ben Zobrist in the outfield, Tampa Bay is left with Sean Rodriguez as the only starter between 2B, 3B and SS. He is batting only .239 this season.
The Rays have made it with bench intended veterans (Jeff Keppinger) and minor league call ups (Elliot Johnson,Will Rhymes), but the bench may wear thin. Johnson (.288 AVG, 59 at bats) and Rhymes (.273 AVG, 44 at bats) have been promising, but Johnson has unproven career numbers, and Rhymes could be out an unknown amount of time based on the extent of his arm injury. Likewise, Keppinger has put up decent numbers (.291 batting average), but he is still no more valuable than a minor league call up (0.1 WAR). To compensate, Manager Joe Maddon has matched their strengths in batting against opposing pitchers. Keppinger and Rodriguez both mash lefties, but the infield is still only mediocre if they play everyday. With fewer options, the carrousel is breaking down.
Longoria is out for 6 more weeks, and the Rays are running thin on infield options. AAA Durham holds former starter Reid Brignac and first overall pick Tim Beckham, but neither have lived up to their hype. Brignac has been a bust, and Beckham was recently suspended for violating MLB's drug policy. The team could add to the outfield and pull Ben Zobrist back to second base, but with Desmond Jennings and Brandon Allen's injury timelines questionable (and with Sam Fuld out until late July), the outfield depth has run dry.
Should the injury problems not resolve themselves, a new name has entered the fray in Tampa Bay: former world series MVP Hideki Matsui. Opting not to retire, the 37 year old legend fro Japan joined the Rays on April 30th and has been playing with the Durham Bulls. He made his first appearance on May 15th and will work back into shape. If the Rays find him a viable option, either Matsui or designated hitter Luke Scott could play from left field and allow the other to DH.
Stephen Vogt was recently called up from Durham to fill the bench, and his position versatility (C, OF) is valuable, but he is not an everyday player. Short of calling up first base prospect Leslie Anderson to play third base for six weeks, options are running out on the farm. Let's hope the Rays starters can return from injury before these desperate moves turn in to everyday solutions.