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Evan Longoria Down, Rays Out?

Evan Longoria has a partially torn hamstring. He’ll miss at least four weeks and as many as eight while he rehabs the injury. His team is left with a slim four-and-a-half game lead on last-place Boston and two months without their star. Their internal options may not seem scintillating, but they could do just enough… provided Longoria can return healthy.

First, let’s set the time frame involved. If we assume the hamstring is not completely torn and it’s not a grade three hamstring situation, we can use eight weeks as a worst-case scenario. If we remove tears and surgeries from the database and average up the 186 mentions of ‘hamstring strain’ and ‘thigh strain’ since 2002 from Jeff Zimmerman‘s database, we get an average of 28 days missed. That includes all grades of non-completely-torn hamstring-type injuries, and this one seems somewhat severe. Let’s use four weeks as the best-case scenario.

ZiPs has Longoria worth another 6.7 wins this season. Take one month away, and the Rays could still get 5.4 wins from their third baseman. Two months, and that number goes down to around four wins. So that’s somewhere between 1.3 and 2.6 wins lost to this injury.

But of course, there will be a few in-house solutions, and they could provide some work above replacement of their own. Tuesday night, it was switch-hitting Elliot Johnson. Move Ben Zobrist to second base full-time, and the right-handed hitting Jeff Keppinger is available for help at third base. The role of backup second baseman will be played by all five-foot-nine, 155-pounds of lefty-hitting Will Rhymes, who was called up Tuesday night. For the purposes of discussion, let’s give Rhymes’ Johnson’s plate appearances per month, and then split Longoria’s work between Keppinger and Johnson.

Johnson got 28 plate appearances in the first month, to the tune of a .293 wOBA, with minus defense at different spots around the infield. Rhymes will only be asked to work at second, most likely, where he’s also been a slight minus by most numbers but was thought of as scratch on the way up. ZiPs has him projected for a .285 wOBA, but MARCEL thinks he could manage a .317. It won’t come the same way as Johnson’s work did, but Rhymes can probably fake it without much of a dropoff.

So we’re left with some sort of Keppinger/Johnson split. Keppinger has been playing mostly against left-handers, so let’s give him that portion of the work. He’s managed a .291 wOBA so far, and ZiPs doesn’t expect him to do much better than .297 going forward. But in 681 PAs against left-handers in his career, Keppinger has shown a .372 wOBA. But we have to regress that split against 2200 plate appearances, meaning that even if he’s held just to left-handers, the reasonable expectation for his rest-of-season wOBA is closer to a .316 wOBA in what we’ll call a quarter of the remaining at-bats. ZiPs has Johnson going for a .283 wOBA over the rest of the season, and the switch-hitters’ splits have come in 115 PAs against righties, so we’ll take ZiPs word for it. The average wOBA this year is .312, so with 1/4 Keppinger and 3/4 Johnson, the new Rays third baseman would lose 1.8 runs per 100 PAs below replacement at the plate while Longo was out, added to the lost Longoria work.

That’s not even a fifth of a win, and there are mitigating circumstances. Keppinger and Johnson, though not known for their defense, are both shortstops to some extent. Let’s call them, combined, scratch shortstops — Keppinger has been worse than scratch recently, but Johnson’s work is in such a small sample that it’s irrelevant, and he’s younger and closer to being a regular shortstop. If they are scratch shortstops, they would be worth as much as five runs per 600 PAs at third base. So their gloves might earn back .8 runs per 100 PAs, in other words.

That’s a lot of work to discover that Longoria’s injury will cost the team just short of a win and a half per month he’s out.

By CAIRO projections, a two-win loss drops the Rays one game out of the postseason. Jason Brannon at SBNation compiled the best projection systems and had the Rays tied with the Angels for the second wild card spot before this injury.

The picture gets worse when you consider the fact that hamstring injuries can linger. 35 of the aforementioned 186 hamstring strains since 2002 were from the same player in the same year — often the injury comes back and causes more missed time later. As much as it will hurt Longoria to watch his team play without him, it will be important for him to make sure he’s fully healthy before he returns.

The Rays’ postseason chances took a hit when Longoria grabbed his hamstring. Their in-house options may be able to replace his defense, but missing his bat may cost them as much as two precious wins. One month, and the team should still be within spitting distance of the postseason in late summer. Two months, though, and the picture gets much cloudier.