Thursday, February 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays have lots of lineup options

As the Rays work over the next month to set their batting order, a main issue will be balancing their left- and right-handed hitters. Manager Joe Maddon likes to alternate, believing it works to their benefit in dictating how opponents use their bullpen.

But there is also value in setting it up to maximize their advantage against the starter in their push for early leads, which could mean stacking right-handers Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria at the top and/or having three lefties in the middle (or over four spots) among Matt Joyce, Carlos Peña, Luke Scott and switch-hitter Ben Zobrist. Also a factor is Maddon's willingness to pinch hit at several spots. Against lefty starters, they will have a different lineup with infielder Jeff Keppinger involved.

Here is a look at their options slot by slot.

No. 1: Desmond Jennings, LF

Jennings is set, his combination of patience, power and speed an appealing package at the top. However, the Rays are hoping his first 36 games following a mid July promotion — .343 average, .434 on-base and .620 slugging percentage — are more what they get than his last 27 — .155, .256, .236.

No. 2: Ben Zobrist, RF/2B or B.J. Upton, CF

If the Rays knew they'd get over a full season what they got from Upton in 23 September games batting second (.356, 14 RBIs, 1.106 OPS), they'd put him there and accept having three right-handers atop the order. But they don't know that or if that's even the best way to use Upton as opposed to more of an RBI spot lower in the order. So they will also look at Zobrist, right, a switch-hitter who can be more of a situational hitter. Ideally, they'd rather have a lefty swinger, who would slot between righties Jennings and Longoria, and also would benefit when Jennings is on first. Luke Scott could emerge as an option, especially given his career .349 on-base percentage.

No. 3: Evan Longoria , 3B

Longoria prefers to hit third, knowing he'll bat in the first inning (though his numbers are better in the fourth and fifth spots). The only reason for him not to hit third is if Upton is second and the Rays decide it's important to have a lefty here —Zobrist? Scott? Joyce? — and drop Longoria a spot to increase his RBI potential. For what it's worth, Zobrist's numbers are better hitting third (and fourth) than second (.234 average, .720 OPS).

No. 4: Carlos Peña , 1B or Luke Scott , DH

Assuming Longoria stays third, there will be a lefty slugger here. Peña, right, is the logical fit given his combination of power and patience at the plate (.352 on-base). But he does strike out a lot (an average of 171 per 162 games), which can kill a rally. Scott would provide a little less power but a similar on-base percentage (.349) and a lot more contact (120 strikeouts per 162 games and 63 percent of plate appearances with balls in play compared with Peña's 53 percent).

No. 5: Ben Zobrist, RF/2B or B.J. Upton, CF

Whoever doesn't hit second between Upton, left, and Zobrist seems the logical fit here. As well as Upton did in the second spot, he could be more productive given the RBI potential. And if slotted between Peña and Scott, Upton might face lefty relievers in key situations as teams seek to avoid using three pitchers (lefty-righty-lefty) to face three batters. But Upton strikes out nearly as often as Peña, and the Rays might prefer to separate them to keep rallies in motion. Zobrist is a key piece because switch-hitters can limit moves by the opponents' bullpen.

No. 6: Luke Scott, DH or Carlos Peña, 1B

The other lefty slugger — Peña or Scott — likely hits here, giving Maddon his preferred alternating of lefty-righty hitters. The 4/6 decision seems somewhat benign and might just be a daily question of which one matches up better with the opposing starter.

No. 7: Matt Joyce, RF or Jeff Keppinger , 2B

Maddon often says the measure of an American League lineup is the quality of the No. 7 hitter, and he might have a 2011 All-Star there in Joyce. He, Peña and Scott could be interchangeable against right-handers based on daily matchups. Against lefties, Keppinger, a righty swinger, will replace Joyce (with Zobrist going to rightfield), Scott or Peña.

No. 8: Jose Molina, C

The speed of the lineup will come to a halt with Molina, right, (and at least slow down with the other catcher), and Maddon would prefer to have the catcher eighth so the order can flow better when it flips over. If Jose Lobaton is the second catcher, he has the benefit of being a switch-hitter, which helps with the lefty-righty balance. The Rays will pinch-hit here when the opportunity arises.

No. 9: Sean Rodriguez, SS or Reid Brignac, SS

The Rays don't need much from the No. 9 spot but more than they got last year from lefty-swinging Brignac, left, (.193, .227 on-base, .221 slugging) and the righty Rodriguez (.223/.323 /.357 overall, .192/.280/.296 against right-handers). What they do need is a hitter who does the "little things" and can get on base to set up the top of the order. They will pinch-hit here as well.

   
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