PORT CHARLOTTE — Less than three weeks to go before opening day: Do you know who your third baseman is?
For that matter, your leftfielder, right-handed first baseman or principal designated hitter?
For a team that has very little wiggle room on the roster, the Rays still have an awful lot of moving pieces that need figuring out. And, unlike years past, they don’t have versatility in all the right places.
It’s almost as if there was a slight shift in philosophy during recent offseasons. The Rays are not abandoning their devotion to defense but, for a change, they are taking risks with their run prevention models to juice up the offense.
And since their limitations on payroll prevent them from acquiring the kind of hitter who can play every day regardless of whether there is a left-hander or right-hander on the mound — in other words, a $12 million a year player — their roster is overloaded with platoon possibilities.
What does that mean?
Hunter Renfroe, Jose Martinez and Yandy Diaz should never miss a start against a left-handed pitcher. And Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe and Joey Wendle should be in the lineup vs. most right-handed pitchers.
The trick is figuring out how to mix and match their positions.
“This is who we are," said manager Kevin Cash. “It’s not that much different from last spring. We think we’re more talented and we have more depth but having that many options does present some challenges,"
The Rays can start with this basic concept:
Austin Meadows, Willy Adames and Kevin Kiermaier will be in the lineup most days. Yoshi Tsutsugo also likely will get a chance to hit against both lefties and righties, at least until the Rays figure out how he is adjusting to major-league pitchers. Mike Zunino will be the catcher and either Michael Perez, Kevan Smith or Chris Herrmann will win the backup job.
That leaves four spots in the batting order that could be subject to platoons.
The problem is the Rays have a logjam at first and third base. Martinez and Choi can play first base, but not the outfield. Diaz can play third base, and maybe a little first, but not the outfield. Tsutsugo can play left field, but could end up at third several days a week.
With so many corner infielders, and no true backup in centerfield, the Rays traded closer Emilio Pagan for outfielder Manuel Margot at the start of spring. That move, along with the glut of corner infielders, means the Rays will likely be thin at second and shortstop.
Based on his splits from last season, you would probably want to limit Lowe’s at-bats against left-handers, but Wendle could be the only other middle infielder and he also struggles against lefties. It’s also likely Renfroe or Martinez will get more at-bats against right-handers, despite not having particularly good splits last season in San Diego and St. Louis respectively.
“A lot of moving parts, a lot of pieces," Cash said. “But we have to do this or we wouldn’t be getting the most out of our roster."
Depending on the day, the Rays could have less than optimal defense in leftfield (Tsutsugo) or first base (Martinez). And third base is still something of a crapshoot with Diaz and Tsutsugo.
The question is whether it’s worth the risk.
Thanks to pitching and defense, the Rays gave up the second-fewest runs in the American League last season, and that was while playing in a division with two of baseball’s most potent offenses.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay was slightly below average when it came to scoring runs in 2019.
In years past, the Rays have doubled down on that idea of building around pitching and defense, even if it meant sacrificing offense. That model seems to have been tweaked for 2020.
The Rays also had to be mindful of the number of left-handed starting pitchers in the American League East. Last season, they faced more lefties than 25 other teams, which also explains the need for Renfroe, Martinez and Tsutsugo.
For all the roster adjustments, Tampa Bay still has elite level defense at centerfield, shortstop, catcher and, potentially, second base and rightfield with Renfroe. The best-case scenario for everywhere else would probably be average defense.
Will you even notice the potential slip?
Not if they hit the way the Rays are expecting.