Now that the rosters are set, we’ll take a look at what should be a very prolific Rays offense in 2010.
Manager Joe Maddon likes to shift his lineup around more than most, but this is a good guess as to what the typical batting order will look like. The first six spots are more sure-things, while the bottom three will be moved around more as everyone in those bench spots should see significant time.
1. Jason Bartlett – SS
2. Carl Crawford – LF
3. Ben Zobrist – RF
4. Evan Longoria – 3B
5. Carlos Pena – 1B
6. B.J. Upton – CF
7. Pat Burrell – DH
8. Kelly Shoppach – C
9. Sean Rodriguez – 2B
C - Dioner Navarro
3B/1B – Willy Aybar
2B/SS – Reid Brignac
OF – Gabe Kapler
It all starts at the top of the order and the Rays have a 1-2 punch as good as any in the game. Bartlett had a much better year than many realize, hitting .320 with 14 home runs, 30 stolen bases, 29 doubles and seven triples. Despite numbers very similar to Derek Jeter, who was in MVP talks all year, most of the country has never heard of JB.
Crawford meanwhile did what he does best and ran all over the opposition. He finished the season with 60 steals while hitting .305. Between the two of them, they stole 90 bases and had 101 extra-base hits.
Look for more of the same in 2010 as these two once again provide sparks at the top of the lineup.
Heart of the Order
The heart of the order is where things could potentially get a little dicey. A lot hinges on these three being run-producers and while they’re all coming off big years, there are some questions.
The biggest key is how Zobrist will react hitting out of the three spot. He had a huge breakout year last season with 27 homers, but now the secret is out. There’ll be no sneaking up on anyone this time around and now that other teams have a full sample size, pitchers will focus on pitching to his weaknesses. It’s almost certain his numbers will experience some kind of a drop-off.
Longoria is a prototypical cleanup hitter and continues to develop into a star. A glaring weakness though has been his knack for hitting into double plays.
Pena gives the team an all-or-nothing power hitter out of the fifth spot. He was really in the zone last season, but is on the downside of his career. His continued production is a big key to this offense.
BJ and 7-9
The good news is that the rest of the order is solid enough for the Rays not to have to rely on their 3-4-5 hitters as many teams do.
Upton will hit sixth and he is the X-Factor in this lineup. When he is locked-in the Rays become an extraordinarily tough match-up. With injuries behind him, look for Upton to give the team a dynamic power-speed combo in the sixth spot. If he hits well, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him moved up in the order (he spent most of the ‘07 and ‘08 seasons hitting third).
Pat Burrell will look to put his abysmal ‘09 behind him. After putting together the worst year of his career and causing more grief than good in the clubhouse, the Rays spent much of the off season trying to unload his hefty contract. His wounded ego and a year of DH-ing under his belt combined with the fact that he’s in a contract year could result in better numbers. If Burrell struggles the way he did last year, don’t expect Maddon to wait for him to come around as he’ll have plenty of other options to turn to.
The catcher spot will be a platoon of Dioner Navarro and newcomer Kelly Shoppach. The addition of Shoppach from the Cleveland Indians allows the team to always have a well-rested catcher and should help push Navarro, who had an awful 2009 after a career year in ‘08.
Shoppach has some pop, having hit 33 homers in 623 at-bats over the last two seasons, and is coming off a good spring.
Speaking of good springs, no one had a better one than Sean Rodriguez. The versatile rookie hit .460 with a slugging percentage near .900.
Rodriguez, acquired from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir trade, has earned the chance to play at this level after some very good years in the minors. His ability to play anywhere in the field could make him the next Zobrist-type player that finds his way into the lineup in a variety of ways. He’ll turn 25 this month, and is a very polished player with great bat-speed and power.
Each of these guys will see plenty of action, especially Navarro and Brignac who will basically be splitting time.
At this point it looks like Navarro and Shoppach may rotate depending on who’s pitching, with Navarro handling James Shields and Matt Garza, and Shoppach catching David Price and Jeff Niemann.
Willy Aybar has proven capable of providing some quality at-bats and Maddon has expressed a desire to get him more involved.
Brignac is the youngest player on the roster, having just turned 24. Drafted out of high school, he’s been one of the Rays' top prospects for many years. Now, after two years of AAA, he’ll have the chance to prove himself at the big-league level. A smooth-fielding shortstop in the minors, he’ll play second base for the Rays and get plenty of at-bats against righties.
Kapler is here more for veteran presence than anything else; any production out of him will be an added bonus. He’ll likely get some starts in right field against lefties.
Outfielder Matt Joyce will begin the season on the DL and it’s uncertain if he will join the Rays or head to Durham when he returns. The most likely scenario is for the team to send down Brignac, ensuring his continued development, unless the team is ready to part ways with Kapler.
One advantage the Rays may have is that they feature more young players coming into their own, whereas many of the Yankees/Red Sox have maxed out. Situational hitting will be big this year. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of putting it together at the same time.