For the Tampa Bay Rays, this past offseason was one of addition and subtraction, of gains for the future and losses for the present.
On the plus side, they locked up third baseman Evan Longoria with a handsome six-year, $100 million extension that solidifies the former junior college transfer’s place as an elite presence in the major leagues. However, they lost center fielder B.J. Upton in free agency to the Atlanta Braves after eight years with the franchise. That development leads to questions about how a lineup that ranked 18th in runs scored last season will fare without one of its most productive talents.
The additions of Yunel Escobar, James Loney and Kelly Johnson are intriguing. But make no mistake: The Rays’ offensive threat will evolve around whether Longoria stays healthy and productive. After an offseason of gain and loss, Tampa Bay hopes to see plenty of advancement on the scoreboard.
OF Desmond Jennings (.246 avg, 13 HR, 47 RBIs) – He played a career-high 132 games last season and posted the best totals of his career. He closed tied with B.J. Upton for most stolen bases on the team with 31.
OF Matt Joyce (.241 avg, 17 HR, 59 RBIs) – His production dropped off slightly from career-high totals in 2011. Still, he provides the potential for power if healthy.
OF Ben Zobrist (.270, 20 HR, 74 RBIs) – He finished second on the team in home runs with 20 last season, behind Upton’s 28. With Upton in Atlanta, he and Longoria could provide the bulk of Tampa Bay’s power.
3B Evan Longoria (.289 avg, 17 HR, 55 RBIs) – He played in a career-low 74 games last season because of a left hamstring injury that required surgery. A wealthy extension signed in the offseason solidified his place as the franchise’s face of the future.
DH Luke Scott (.229 avg, 14 HR, 55 RBIs) – Back issues limited him to 96 games in his first season with the Rays last year after arriving from the Baltimore Orioles. Tampa Bay coaches have watched his health closely this spring.
SS Yunel Escobar (.253 avg, 9 HR, 51 RBIs) – He’s a controversial talent who arrived in Tampa Bay after a trade with the Miami Marlins. Manager Joe Maddon likes his potential, but he comes with risk.
1B James Loney (.249 avg, 6 HR, 41 RBIs) – The former Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers player was acquired in the offseason. He hopes to revitalize himself after posting career-low home run and RBI totals last year.
C Jose Molina(.223 avg, 8 HR, 32 RBIs) – With 251 appearances last season, he had his first 200-plus at-bat campaign since appearing at the plate 268 times with the New York Yankees in 2008. At 37, he’s aging, but he’s the Rays’ answer at his position for now.
2B Kelly Johnson (.225 avg, 16 HRs, 55 RBIs) – The former Toronto Blue Jays player fills the Rays’ void at second base. He’s dependable, having played in at least 142 games in each of the past three seasons.
C Jose Lobaton (.222 avg, 2 HR, 20 RBIs) – He’s the backup to Molina for now. Reserve catcher Chris Gimenez had a strong spring but was sent to Class AAA Durham on Monday.
IF Ryan Roberts (.214 avg, 6 HR, 18 RBIs) – He’s a versatile option who has had experience at a number of positions this spring. He appeared in 60 games last season, his fewest since 36 in 2010.
IF Sean Rodriguez (.213 avg, 6 HR, 32 RBIs) – He played in 112 games last season. With Johnson’s signing at second base, though, he’ll probably see time elsewhere.
OF Sam Fuld (.255 avg, 0 HR, 5 RBIs) – A right wrist injury made him miss a significant chunk of last season. He only appeared in 44 games, but look for his production to rise this summer.
Potential for Power
If Longoria stays healthy, there’s room for this lineup to create a few dents against American League pitching. Joyce and Zobrist are proven commodities, and Johnson is intriguing. Scott missed a chance to show what he could do last season because of injury, but if he stays on the field, he may do damage as well. The absence of Upton will be the largest X-factor in this equation. Still, the possibility for power is there.
Will there be more runs, and if so, where will they come from?
Despite the Rays’ success last season, run production was lacking. Tampa Bay finished with 697, which ranked 11th in the American League. Only the Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners were worse. The Rays’ ability to hit for power wasn’t much better. They produced 175 home runs, a total that was good for eighth in the American League. This likely cost them a chance to reach the postseason for the third consecutive year.
Of course, Longoria’s abbreviated season is partly to blame for those figures. Along the way this summer, Upton’s absence will force the Rays to adapt. The center fielder was a valuable combination of power and speed, but with his departure to the Braves, Tampa Bay must search for new answers. Johnson could plug in nicely into this adjusted line-up. Maddon also has high hopes for Escobar, a former Johnson teammate. Wherever the production may come, the Rays must find it somewhere.
Most important piece of lineup
A player’s worth is most obvious when he’s not available. Such was the case with Longoria last year, when his left hamstring injury likely cost the Rays a playoff berth. Tampa Bay went 41-44 in games he missed because of the ailment, which the power hitter has insisted this spring is healed.
Certainly, the Rays hope all is clear for their marquee player as he enters his sixth major-league season. A contract extension signed in the offseason has raised his profile, and Maddon has spoken about Longoria’s recognition of the responsibilities that come with the financial security. Perhaps no player in the division is more valuable to his team’s offensive efforts than Longoria, now that Jose Bautista has received significant help after the Blue Jays were part of an extensive offseason deal with the Miami Marlins. Before his setback last season, Longoria had hit at least 31 home runs in two of the previous three years, in addition to earning a combined 316 RBIs in that span.
This is Longoria’s team, and the upcoming season is his chance to show it. He’s one of the clubhouse’s most focused competitors, so missing as much time as he did last year was a nuisance for him. The extension came with a number of unseen pressures. He’ll be asked to pick up some of the offensive void left in Upton’s absence. Where Longoria leads, the Rays will follow.