Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Analysis: Rays need Evan Longoria to regain slugging touch

ST. PETERSBURG

The Rays can look within themselves, as manager Kevin Cash suggested, for ways to improve offensively. They can look at the fringes of the trade market, as they typically are wont to do rather than the top shelf, for marginal upgrades. They can look to the disabled list and coo excitedly about the potential benefit of getting Desmond Jennings — Remember him? Ran a little, had some power? — back sometime in August.

But if they are going to get substantially better, or even slightly more productive, they have to look no further than the No. 3 spot in their lineup.

Evan Longoria hitting like the Evan Longoria of old — say, oh, 2013 — would provide the single biggest boost to their lineup, giving them that masher, that beast, that guy who can carry them and cause other teams to cower.

The Evan Longoria they have now is not that guy, a shell of the old one in power and related production.

Of greater concern, neither he nor the Rays seem to know why, or at least how to correct it.

Of some consolation, Longoria is as frustrated doing it as you are watching it.

"It's been tough," he said. "It's been tough just because I know I'm better than this. And I know at some point I'm going to figure it out.

"It's just, I don't know … I told (manager Kevin) Cash the other day, I felt like I never played the game before."

Urgency is an issue, with the Rays losing 19 of their past 27 games and their goal of playing meaningful (i.e., playoff-contending) games in September slipping away.

Of longer-term concern, Longoria, 29, is signed for seven more years at a guaranteed $105.5 million, plus a 2023 option ($5 million/$13 million). And he isn't likely to be going anywhere, with a sense that even if the contract wasn't an issue that the Rays wouldn't trade him — unless he wanted out — given the mutual commitment.

So what's wrong?

Scouts, analysts, uniformed personnel see a guy who now gets beat by or fouls off the fastballs he used to punish, chases too many breaking balls, doesn't use his legs as much as he had been, has changed his stance and hand positions, goes to rightfield too often rather than trying to drive or pull the ball, has timing issues, doesn't hit the ball as hard.

The fan/media expert/talk radio/Twitter world has chipped in with more ideas:

That he's hurt. Longoria says he's fine, and that the sore wrist that bothered him for months is much better after the four-day All-Star break. That he's too concerned about his business and sponsor interests. He says that's not an issue. That he lost his power by losing too much weight. He says he's down maybe 5 pounds since spring training, hardly a factor.

For whichever, or whatever, reason, the dropoff is obvious.

Consider, there were 95 players going into Thursday's games with more than Longoria's nine homers, which put him on pace for a career-worst 15 for the season. There were 101 players among regulars with a higher slugging percentage than his .397, which is nearly 100 points below his pre-2015 career average. There were 102 with better isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) than his .134, 100 points below his 2008-13 totals.

Longoria is aware that his declining numbers have become an increasingly popular topic of discussion and dissection. His rebuttal is that his focus is helping the team win with RBIs, his 41 so far on pace for 69, with a .262 average.

"I just care about driving guys in," he said. "Home runs come when they come. You can't really try and hit home runs. I feel like I've swung the bat pretty well overall, more consistent than last year, I just haven't hit the home runs. …

"I feel like I'm hitting the ball hard, it's just not going in the air. So I don't know what it is. I've done nothing different."

The extended struggles have left Longoria frustrated, "confused and baffled," and a few other more colorful words, but he has continued to work excessively hard to get better.

He has spent hours before and after games studying video and working with hitting coaches Derek Shelton and Jamie Nelson, has talked to his dad (who told him to stick with what he always has done), queried other good hitters on what works for them, even asking old buddy David Price for the lowdown on Tigers teammate Miguel Cabrera.

As easy as it is to make Longoria the prime target given the name on his back and zeroes on his pay stub, that's not necessarily fair in context, given the lineup around him and the overall decline in offense.

"Whether you're one of the few guys in the lineup that gets pitched tough and they don't want you to be the one that beats them, you play in a big ballpark, whatever the factors are, the pitching has gotten better, and it's just gotten tougher to hit," he said.

Still, he will be at the Trop today, probably around noon, trying to discover, actually rediscover, what works, acknowledging that he should be in the prime of his career and not decline.

"There's no excuse, other than it's been difficult, it's been tough so far this year," he said. "I've just got to keep showing up and keep working at it and hope that — I guess, not hope — believe that things are going to turn around at some point. …

"The game is difficult and sometimes you're going to go through times like this. I have no doubt that at some point I will figure out how to be that player again."

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

 
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