Trying to predict a major league lineup 24 days before pitchers and catchers report is an exercise in futility. Trying to predict what the Tampa Bay Rays will do at any given time is just as pointless, but what else is there to do? By now we know about we need to know about Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon as players. Both have impressive resumes spanning a more than a decade and a half. Though they are not the same players they were five years ago, both are capable of playing the game at a high level – at least the offensive end of it.
What we do not know is where and how they will fit. However, this is not a case of fitting square pegs in a round hole. Damon and Ramirez have offensive skill sets that are valued and needed by the Rays. There is also enough playing time at the positions they play. All Joe Maddon and the Rays’ research staff have to do is figure out how to fit them together with the other pieces of the puzzle. To do that, we first have to figure out what those pieces are.
Once again, predicting a large part of an opening day roster in late January is almost impossible to do. That said, there is no harm in tossing out some ideas. Ignoring the pitchers for now, we’ll focus on the 13 position players; again making the assumption that the team will use a traditional roster of 13 position players and 12 pitchers.
The good news is the majority of the 13 available spots are either locks or near locks: Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Reid Brignac, John Jaso, Kelly Shoppach, Dan Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, Ben Zobrist, Matthew Joyce, Johnny Damon, and Manny Ramirez will occupy 11 of the 13 spots; if healthy. Because of their roster status (on the 40-man roster and out of minor league options), outfielder Sam Fuld and infielder Elliot Johnson seem to have the inside track on the last two spots.
Fuld, Johnson, and Shoppach (starting for Jaso versus left-handed pitching) will occupy bench seats on most days. The final bench spot will rotated between several platoon players most likely Joyce versus left-handed pitchers and Sean Rodriguez versus right-handers. This leaves 10 players for nine spots – one dropping off to the bench depending on match-ups.
Ignoring defensive positions for now (where there even more possibilities), we can start to put together a simple starting nine depending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher. Thanks to R.J. Anderson, here is a clean graphic on which batters do well against pitchers of a particular hand.
*Please note that this includes small sample sizes of data for several players like Joyce, Brignac, Rodriguez and Johnson. Also note that Evan Longoria is an equal opportunity offender thus continuing the notion that he is indeed perfect.
Based on this graphic, Ramirez, Damon, Johnson, Longoria, Jaso, Joyce, and Brignac should be in the lineup versus right-handed batters. Because of their importance on defense, Zobrist and Upton are included, although they should be stashed away toward the bottom of the lineup.
Against lefties, the lefty trio of Johnson, Jaso, and Joyce are the most likely to take a seat on the bench with the rest of the lineup remaining in place. Shoppach replaces Jaso in a natural platoon at catcher while Sean Rodriguez replaces Joyce in the lineup, but likely moves Zobrist from the infield to the outfield on defense. The key to the lineup versus southpaws will be first base.
It is unlikely the Rays give the majority of playing time to the left-handed Dan Johnson, but there is no natural platoon partner at the position. Instead, the Rays may choose to keep both Zobrist and Rodriguez on the infield with one playing first base and the other at second – both played first base in limited action in 2010. This would leave two open spots in the corner outfield positions. But only left-handed batters Sam Fuld Damon, and Joyce as options. There is also the question of shortstop, where the left-handed Reid Brignac could be seated in favor of Elliot Johnson.
As you would expect, both scenarios include a lot of moving parts and all 13 members of our projected position players are involved in one way or another. This will no doubt infuriate some members of the Bay Area who are against the platoon and prefer an everyday lineup. These lineup projections also do not include things like the Danks Theory – a strategy that uses reverse platoon splits to neutralize a pitcher’s strengths – or platoon splits versus batted- ball types (flyball or groundball pitchers) among many other variables. As unscientific as it may be, this is a best guess estimate so apply the obligatory grain of salt…or two.
In a perfect world the Rays would have nine Evan Longoria with equal splits, but that’s not happening; nor is it as fun to figure out.