ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were predictably and properly thrilled to acquire Nelson Cruz last week.
Beyond the vast experience, heralded leadership and immense industry-wide respect Cruz walked into their clubhouse with, the veteran right-handed slugger’s massive presence in the No. 3 or 4 spot in the lineup immediately addresses two of their biggest offensive shortcomings.
The Rays at the time of Thursday’s trade ranked 13th among American League teams in batting average (.226) and OPS (.682) against lefty pitchers, and 12th in average (.221) and OPS (.710) from their designated hitters.
General manager Erik Neander said in considering ways to improve the team and its chances to win the American League East — and thus have a better route to get back to the World Series — adding Cruz more so than a frontline starter “was likely the path that would provide the most impact in a single roster spot.”
And there has been some immediate gratification. Cruz homered in two of his first three games. Ji-Man Choi got better pitches hitting ahead of him and took advantage with a big weekend. The 20 runs the Rays scored in the three games matched the most in the majors for that span.
“It’s going to be very fun watching him hit each and every night, and hopefully a lot of loud noises coming his way,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “He definitely makes us better, and we’re so happy to have him.”
But the addition of a full-time DH to a team that regularly rotated different players in that spot (seven before Cruz) also presents some “challenges,” Neander admitted.
Most pointedly, the master-class level juggling manager Kevin Cash will have to do to keep the other players involved and engaged, as playing time will be reduced in some way for just about all.
Cash is banking on players realizing the overall upside of the trade.
“We’re going to try to balance and even it out very well,” he said. “I think if we look at the big picture, we continue to stay selfless like these guys have just been for quite some time now, I know we’re really going to benefit from this addition on the field, and certainly in the clubhouse.”
The most obvious impact is that team RBIs leader Austin Meadows, the 26-year-old who made 48 of his first 87 starts at DH, will now spend just about all of his time in leftfield with Randy Arozarena, who had played mostly left, shifting to right.
Meadows, whose improvement in the outfield is an ongoing process, said he welcomed the opportunity. “That’s kind of what I came up doing, so obviously I’m ready for it,” he said. “Hopefully I can contribute out there as much as I can at the plate. So we’ll see.”
As a result, the outfielders will feel the biggest squeeze, even more so with Manuel Margot — who can play all three spots — returning from the injured list Tuesday.
One option will be platooning more based on the handedness of the opposing pitcher, as Arozarena and Margot are righty swingers and Kiermaier, Meadows and Brett Phillips are lefties. Another, Cash said, will to be more aggressive in bringing in their “elite” defensive outfielders during games, which could cost Meadows and Arozarena some late-inning at-bats.
There is also a trickle-down effect on the infield, most notably the demotion of slick-fielding shortstop Taylor Walls to Triple-A.
Brandon Lowe, who was starting to get more time in the outfield (11 starts total), goes back to playing primarily second base. That means Joey Wendle’s playing time will come from occasionally spelling top prospect Wander Franco at shortstop, but mostly at third, which means less time there for Yandy Diaz, who could get a little more time at first in place of Choi.
“It takes a selfless approach from everybody on the team,” Wendle said. “It’s a good problem to have when you have good players on our bench. I think that’s going to happen every night. There’s going to be somebody every night that ... probably should be in the starting lineup and is not.
“I think (Cash) is probably right in that there is going to have to be more buy-in. I think that’s kind of been the team philosophy from Day 1, that you may not be starting but you’re probably coming in off the bench at some point so you better be ready.”
Kiermaier said they get it.
“Cash and the front office and our players, we just ask each other to buy into what we’re trying to do and that’s win ballgames. Win a lot of ballgames and get to the playoffs and advance from there,” he said. “We’ve kind of had a little rotation going throughout the whole season. Cash does a great job trying to keep everyone fresh and keep everyone playing.
“You’ve got your guys who are going to play a little bit more than others, rightfully so, and those guys deserve that. But it’s one of those things, we keep everyone fresh. ... So we’ll figure it out. ... But it’s up to us to stay motivated and stay hungry, and see how special of an opportunity we have right now and moving forward.”
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