Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Ever-changing lineups necessary to Rays' Maddon

Rightfield is a riddle. Left is a mystery. Second base is a free-for-all.

Who's on first?

Everybody, that's who.

Here come the Rays, driving you crazy once again with their interchangeable lineups. The catcher depends on the time of day, it seems. The designated hitter depends on the tides.

Today a lineup, tomorrow another lineup, and goodness knows what the next day will bring. Who's batting leadoff? Who is hitting second? And can anyone claim the cleanup slot for himself?

This is life with the Rays, where few slots are set and few positions are nailed down. Every day, you have to check the lineup to see who is in, who is out and who is on standby.

And, if you haven't figured out by now, that's the plan.

Just wondering, but since when did versatility become a bad word? There are some who follow the Rays who are driven up a wall by the lack of an everyday rightfielder, or an everyday leftfielder, or an everyday, well, you name it. For Joe Maddon, baseball is a Rubik's Cube with 25 sides, where today's batting order has only a passing resemblance to yesterday's batting order.

"We can't necessarily afford the guys who play 150 games at one position," the manager said. "Some teams can, we can't. So we piece it together the way we do. That's how we set it up in the off-season."

Say this for Maddon's madness: It works. You can grouse all you want about Ben Zobrist playing a little right and a little second, and you can gripe that Matt Joyce doesn't face enough left-handed pitchers. When a team has won 91 games a year for the past five with this kind of payroll, however, something is working.

By now, the versatility is the fiber of the Rays' success. It is the team's single biggest strength that most consider to be a weakness.

"This is a big part of our success, a huge part. I'd say our ability to platoon and pick spots has to be worth 10 victories a year," Maddon said.

If the Rays are successful this year, it will be the same.

Let's see. James Loney will play first base, except for the days when Sean Rodriguez plays there. Ryan Roberts and Kelly Johnson will play second, unless Rodriguez plays there. Or Zobrist. Jose Molina will catch, until he doesn't because one of the three backups plays there.

Zobrist will start in right, until he's at second, in which case Joyce will play there. Joyce could play left if Zobrist is in right; other­wise Sam Fuld or Johnson fills in. Luke Scott will DH, unless Maddon has a whim. And Maddon often has a whim.

Got that?

"In other words, we'll have a full-timer at third (Evan Longoria), at short (Yunel Escobar) and in center (Desmond Jennings)," Maddon said.

None of this is anything new. For each of the past five years, Maddon has started an increasing number of lineups. In 2008, it was 115. The next year, it was 123. In 2010, it was 129. In 2011, it was 130. Then last year, with Longoria hurt, it was a whopping 151 lineups in 162 games.

Every night, the only thing you could count on was Maddon mixing and matching, playing mad scientist with his positions and his batting order, waiting for a flash of light and a burst of creativity. Sometimes, it was because of scouting reports. Sometimes, it was because Maddon was playing a hunch. Either way, it seems to pay off an uncanny amount of the time.

Still, however, it doesn't sit right with fans who think Maddon overthinks it. After all, other teams have set lineups, don't they?

And so this becomes the hottest topic on the Rays. Why so many lineups? Why so many batting orders?

Just a hunch here: because it works?

"I don't know why that gains any momentum at all," Maddon said. "I find it amusing. They don't even know what they're talking about most of the time."

For instance: Jeff Keppinger hit .325 last season for the Rays in 115 games. But some of that, the Rays believe, was because of the matchups he faced. Joyce hit .241 but only .209 vs. left-handed pitchers.

And so it goes. Maddon will tinker here, and he'll fine-tune there, and he'll swap the eighth-place hitter with the second-place hitter and the fifth-place with the fourth-place. He'll move this guy, and he'll start that one, and he'll give the other one a day off when you least expect it. He'll make so many changes that you'd swear he was doing it just to tick you off.

In the end, who knows? Maybe Maddon will get to 162 lineups this year.

By then, you may not wonder who's on first.

You might wonder who is in first.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon at 98.7-FM the Fan.

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