Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Method to Rays' lineup madness for Maddon

ST. PETERSBURG — Joe Maddon hears your outrage, your umbrage. He senses the aggravation and the exasperation. He knows that the way he changes the lineup literally almost every day and constantly shuffles players around the field irks some and ticks off others.

And, at the appropriate moment, he will respond.

With a laugh.

"I know people get frustrated with that," the Rays' manager said. "And that's why I chuckle at that. Because it pretty much has to be that way."

The Rays are built to truly be a sum of their parts, finding it more economical and more productive to pair two, or more, players in situations that maximize their strengths (from basic lefty-righty platoons to more complex matchups) to fill one hole.

They fancy flexibility and value versatility among their players, and they put it to use. With last year's team ravaged by injuries, Maddon was at his best — or worst — using a majors-most 151 batting orders for their 162 games, and no one more than three times.

And this year, he has even more parts to play with.

On the field, the Rays are planning on having two players share time at first base, catcher and rightfield. They have a trio in mind for leftfield. And what Maddon has dubbed the "quad-toon" — yes, four guys — at second base.

The lineup may feature only one player hitting in the same spot every day, leadoff man Desmond Jennings. Otherwise, there will be one framework against right-handed starters, with Evan Longoria hitting fourth, and another against left-handers, in which he likely will hit third.

And that is exactly how the Rays like it.

"We've got a lot of guys that can move around," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "I think it really speaks to putting guys in position to have success and finding guys that complement one another. Instead of looking at it in a very confined box, we expand our search and look for guys that can do different things, which allows Joe the flexibility on any given night to play different combinations of players. And with that versatility it makes it easier to do that instead of, if Player A doesn't play, Player B has to play. It allows that flexibility to do a lot of different things."

Here is a look at some of the moves you can expect to see:

Platoons

CATCHER: Leading man Jose Molina is slated for similar duty as last year, when he appeared in a career-high 100 games and made 80 starts. That makes Jose Lobaton, a switch-hitter who does better against lefty pitchers, more of an equal partner than a backup. The decision sometimes will be based on the Rays' starter, sometimes on the opponent.

FIRST BASE: Newcomer James Loney, a lefty swinger who is more accomplished with his glove than bat, will start against right-handers. Utility man Sean Rodriguez, a righty hitter, will start against lefties and has looked fairly comfortable in the field. Loney is a candidate to be pinch-hit for, and Kelly Johnson, another lefty hitter, also could get some time at first.

RIGHTFIELD: Ben Zobrist, a switch-hitter, was to play there a lot, with Matt Joyce, a lefty swinger, getting the other starts. But that might change now that DH Luke Scott is out since Zobrist might play more at second base, with Sam Fuld getting more outfield time and Johnson at DH. Also Zobrist will fill in at short when Yunel Escobar is off.

Tri-toon

Leftfield is set up as a three-way job share with Joyce and Fuld (a lefty hitter who handles lefty pitchers well) getting the bulk of the time, and Johnson making occasional appearances.

Johnson, who has played second the past six seasons, might DH more now but will be out there most likely when others need a DH day or the Rays are starting a ground-ball pitcher and prefer the smoother-fielding Zobrist at second.

Quad-toon

Even by Maddon's standards, this could be complicated.

But there are legit plans at second base for four players: Johnson, Ryan Roberts, Rodriguez and Zobrist. The specifics are deep in their scouting reports, but there will be times against some right-handers for Johnson and Zobrist, and against some left-handers for Roberts and Rodriguez. With Scott out, Zobrist could play more at second with Fuld in left and Johnson at DH.

Batting order

What firm plans Maddon did have were scrambled by Scott going on the DL. And aside from having Jennings at the top, everything else looks flexible.

His priority is to build around Longoria, trying to create as many RBI opportunities by putting high on-base percentage guys ahead of him, but also providing protection with a good hitter behind him. Longoria likes hitting third (knowing he'll bat in the first inning) but is open to what works best.

Maddon also likes to alternate left- and right-handers as much as possible to make it tougher for opponents to deploy their bullpen, and he likes some speed at the bottom because he considers the order to be circular.

With Scott out, the order against righties could look like this: Jennings, Fuld, Zobrist, Longoria, Joyce, Escobar, Loney, Molina, Johnson. The lineup against lefties isn't set, pending who gets promoted.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

     
 
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