Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' lineup isn't yet in order

FORT MYERS — Asking around what the Rays' batting order will look like to start the season gets a shrug, a good laugh, a couple of "Good luck with that" responses.

Manager Kevin Cash said Monday there is still a lot of information to be gathered and processed, and he probably won't lock in on a plan until the last week before the April 3 opener. And, he made clear, don't read anything into the spring lineups.

Only two things seem set: Evan Longoria will hit third, as he prefers, and the catcher, whether it's Curt Casali or Hank Conger or Rene Rivera, will hit ninth.

Beyond that, well, the Rays haven't yet gone much beyond that.

Kevin Kiermaier at the top or back toward the bottom? Corey Dickerson or Logan Morrison cleanup? What to do with Desmond Jennings? All good questions.

First, the Rays need to see more from the new additions —Brad Miller, Steve Pearce, Dickerson, Morrison, Conger — who have created this good-problem-to-have situation to get a sense of where they best fit into their plan.

Or, more accurately, plans as the lineups look as if they will look decidedly different against lefty and righty starters.

Plus, Cash wants to talk with the new guys, and some of the returnees, to see where they are most comfortable, though acknowledging, "We can't appease everybody putting them where they want."

Theories about writing out lineups have become so complex — for example, slotting the best hitter second was in vogue — that books have been written about them.

Cash said his basic theory is "putting as much pressure" as possible on the opposing team. That means constructing the lineup to make it hazardous not only for the opposing starter but the manager as he tries to use his bullpen to navigate the later innings, in terms of who is hitting, who is more likely to be pinch-hit for and who is available off the bench to do so.

"I know from managing against teams last year, the guys that went right-left-right-left, that's difficult because any time you get into those heavy innings you could run through three (bullpen) arms right then," Cash said.

"Now if you've got certain hitters you're great with who they're facing, stack 'em up front. Personally, I think we really like to balance it out where we can get some versatility and make some tough decisions on the opposing team."

Another factor to consider is keeping those "certain" hitters in the same spots vs. right- and left-handed pitchers. Another side issue is what they do with James Loney, if he isn't traded, as expected, to make room for Pearce and Morrison to share time at first.

So, with all that said, what could they be thinking about?

• Leadoff: Actually one of the biggest questions, at least against right-handed starters. Miller, a lefty hitter, will get a lot of consideration. Kiermaier may eventually make it up here, but probably not this season, or at least to start. With Longoria third, a right-hander fits better at the top to get that righty-lefty thing working. Jennings has done it with some success but seems to slot better lower. One interesting option: Souza, if he shows he can strike the right balance between being aggressive and selective. If they do pick a righty hitter, he could stay there full time. If it's Miller or Kiermaier, expect Brandon Guyer to take over vs. lefties.

• No. 2: Kiermaier said he has his eye on this spot, and having him on base and in motion for the heavy hitters has its appeal. Miller could fit, too. But another idea is to put a bigger bat, preferably with a decent on-base percentage, and set the stage for an early ambush, Morrison or Dickerson. Against lefties, Jennings or Pearce or Souza could end up here.

• Middle of the order: With Dickerson or Morrison second and Longoria third, the Rays could create an imposing stack. Figure on either Dickerson or Morrison fourth then Logan Forsythe fifth and either Souza or Jennings sixth. Versus lefties, they can start with seven right-handed hitters, with the potential for a 2-6 of something like Jennings, Longoria, Forsythe, Pearce and Souza.

• From there: The seventh spot will be filled as a result of what they do at Nos. 2 and 6. The default will be Kiermaier eighth and the catcher ninth.

If nothing else, for a team that nine times last season batted Jake Elmore sixth, they have considerably more options to pick from.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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