On Tuesday, Tampa Bay activated Evan Longoria from the disabled list; they haven’t lost since. This correlation between Longoria’s return and the team’s six game winning streak seems a bit flukey when you see his .261/.308/.304 line since coming off the DL and note that the’s not healthy enough to play the field yet, so he’s not producing any defensive value either. However, Longoria’s return has produced something of a chain reaction that has helped the team run off six straight victories, and bodes well for their ability to stay in contention down the stretch.
With Longoria manning the DH spot, the Rays had to find a spot to put Jeff Keppinger, who has quietly been one of the Rays best offensive weapons this year. Since he’s a lousy glove guy, it’s easier to hide him at third base than second base, so they installed Keppinger at third and shifted Ryan Roberts over to second base. That closes off second base for Ben Zobrist, so over the weekend, Joe Maddon decided to give Zobrist another shot at shortstop, playing him on the left side of second base for the first time since 2009.
It’s an idea that the Rays should probably stick with, as Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez have been offensive black holes that have dragged the team down all year. Zobrist isn’t a classic shortstop, but defensive metrics have loved his work at second base over the last four years, and it’s unlikely that he’s capable of being a terrific defensive second baseman while being completely unable to handle shortstop. He might not be a great defender there, but the offensive upgrade that is created by opening up a line-up spot for either Keppinger or Roberts in lieu of Johnson or Rodriguez is substantial.
The Rays also have a pitching staff that can cover for some potentially questionable shortstop defense if Zobrist’s glove proves to be an issue; Tampa Bay’s pitching staff leads the AL in strikeout rate, coming in at 22.2%. With a staff that generates a lot of outs on their own, defensive support isn’t quite as critical to run prevention, and the pitchers are good enough to help bail the defense out if they don’t turn as many balls in play into outs. And, if Longoria’s hamstrings heal up enough for him to play third base in September, Zobrist could shift more towards the middle of the field and allow Longoria’s defensive aptitude to help cover the left side of the infield more thoroughly.
Zobrist as a regular shortstop is a potentially large boon for Tampa Bay, and appears to be the best use of resources that the team currently has on hand. After spending the summer using guys like Drew Sutton in the clean-up spot, the returns of Longoria and Matt Joyce — and now, the potential for Zobrist to fill the shortstop hole — give the Rays an actual Major League line-up.
On Saturday, the Rays rolled out the following batting order:
1. Jennings, LF: 104 wRC+
2. Upton, CF: 96 wRC+
3. Joyce, RF: 142 wRC+
4. Longoria, DH: 142 wRC+
5. Zobrist, SS: 125 wRC+
6. Pena, 1B: 91 wRC+
7. Keppinger, 3B: 131 wRC+
8. Roberts, 2B: 77 wRC+
9. Molina, C: 53 wRC+
1-7, that’s actually pretty good. Keppinger is hitting over his actual abilities and Joyce probably is a bit as well, but that’s a line-up that can score some runs. And given the Rays pitching and defense, a little bit of offense has been the only thing holding them back this season.
Thanks to their six game winning streak, Tampa Bay is now atop the AL Wild Card race, and has actually closed the gap in the AL East to just five games. While it’s unlikely that they can make up five games in six weeks, the division title isn’t completely out of the question, and the Rays are clearly a strong wild card contender. Even without Longoria for most of the year and Joyce for a big chunk of it, the Rays offense, defense, and pitching have all performed at the same level as the Angels, Tigers, and White Sox. If Longoria can stay healthy and start hitting, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the Rays should be the favorites to claim one of the two wild card spots, and David Price is the kind of ace you want to throw in a winner-take-all elimination game.
While they’ve hung on the periphery of the playoff race most of the summer, Longoria’s return and the team’s willingness to try Zobrist out at shortstop has made their offense a lot more interesting, and all of the sudden, the Rays look like a team you wouldn’t want to face in a playoff series.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the year, their success this season should put to rest the notion that the Rays have simply taken advantage of a series of high draft picks in order to build out a contending team. While David Price is certainly providing significant value, they’ve only gotten +2.2 WAR combined from Upton and Longoria, and yet they’re still legitimate playoff contenders while playing in baseball’s toughest division. The 2012 Rays are winning on the backs of Zobrist, Keppinger, Alex Cobb, Fernando Rodney, and Joel Peralta, and they deserve a lot of credit for finding those kinds of contributors.