When you think back to the great Yankees teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, they seemed to win without production at the expected corner positions. Paul O’Neill was a great player at his peak, but his last three seasons (.279/.340/.447) were not of the standard of a right fielder of the day. Scott Brosius was the third baseman in those years, and while defensively excellent, in two of the three seasons, he did little or nothing with the bat. Tino Martinez was barely average overall and sub-par for a first baseman. There was no regular left fielder; the combined mass of them failed to hit two years in three.
The Yankees could afford to do without true sluggers at those positions because they were so loaded up the middle, beginning with catcher Jorge Posada, shortstop Derek Jeter and centerfielder Bernie Williams, as well as, in 1999 only, support at second base from Chuck Knoblauch. They could live with soft production from the power spots with all the hitting they got from primarily defensive positions. As good as those teams were, though, imagine how much better they would have been had they been able to get both.
The 2012 Rays are built along more traditional lines. Run production will come from Carlos Pena at first base, Evan Logoria at third and outfielders Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings—or so Joe Maddon and pals hope. The centerfielder (B.J. Upton, once he’s off the disabled list) can hit, but the catchers are defensive specialists, and the middle infielders…well, the middle infielders don’t really exist.
Last year, Rays second basemen hit fairly well, with Ben Zobrist averaging .265/.341/.475 at the position and Sean Rodriguez kicking in a solid (by the standards of the position) .248/.344/.380.
Shortstop, however, was a different matter, with Reid Brignac’s bat suffering a mysterious but apparently fatal impairment (.193/.227/.221), Elliot Johnson hitting about as expected (.176/.232/.344) and Rodriguez unable to hit as well there as he did at shortstop (.206/.317/.329).
The Rays made only one small attempt at upgrading the middle infield contingent over the winter, adding veteran second baseman Jeff Keppinger. Keppinger has little power, doesn’t walk much and isn’t a great fielder, so he has to hit at least .290 of singles and doubles to be useful. He does hit left-handers quite well (.327/.373/.488 career, with just 23 strikeouts), which explains why Joe Maddon has employed him as a designated hitter against them.
As for shortstop, in the immortal words of David Byrne, it’s the same as it ever was.
Actually, “same” doesn’t really do the situation justice, since Upton’s injury has meant that Zobrist has been nailed to right field, with Joyce shifting to left field and Jennings to center. That in turn has meant that Rodriguez has been pulled over to second base and Brignac has started three of six games, Keppinger five of six and Johnson two of six. None of them have hit, and it seems unlikely that any of them will. Rodriguez is the most potent of the bunch, but he can’t hit right-handed pitching at all (.209/.275/.332), making him a poor choice for an everyday player.
Unlike Joe Torre’s Yankees, the Rays may not be able to survive their softer spots; while Longoria, Joyce, Zobrist, etcetera are very good players, they don’t necessarily tower above their positions the way Jeter, Williams and Posada did, and even if they did, it might not be enough to save the team from the way that replacement-level players like Brignac and Johnson and potentially Rodriguez and Keppinger. For every run below average totaled by that foursome, that’s another home run that Longoria has to hit or the pitchers have to save.
In short, it’s not just that the little guys are too little, but that the big guys have to be bigger. When the Yankees and the Red Sox start playing up to their abilities, that might be one glaring weakness too many in an unforgiving division.