With Evan Longoria due within a week, it’s time to look at what the corresponding roster move should be. Earlier this week, I would have thought maybe the Rays would keep Dan Johnson or Johnny Damon out long enough to retroactively assign them to the disabled list in time for Longoria, but that would have required the Rays to play short-handed for a few days and right now they really can’t afford to.
The Rays are vehemently against just tossing out assets, yet the only player with options the team could part with is Andy Sonnanstine—and with Jeff Niemann’s struggles, keeping a long reliever around to caddy with him might be necessary. For symmetry’s sake, a lot of people will point to Felipe Lopez. If the Rays put him out there, I have a feeling he will get claimed. The Phillies are giving Wilson Valdez starting at-bats and have Pete Orr on their bench. The Marlins are starting Donnie Murphy, the Indians Jack Hannahan and Adam Everett. Maybe Lopez wasn’t appealing two months ago, but now? Have to think someone would claim him on waivers.
Perhaps there is a trade market for Lopez and the Rays can receive some value or him, however, I’m not so sure he shouldn’t stick with the team. I’ve already laid out why Lopez is probably better than Elliot Johnson and I think it still applies. If anything, Johnson is the one who should be talked about in heading out. The problem there, is that Johnson has already accepted one outright assignment, so outrighting him again could result in him declining and instead opting for free agency.
As bad as Johnson’s plate appearances have been this year—and roughly 50 percent have resulted in strikeouts or bunts—he still offers utility as a pinch runner and defensive sub. The Rays are using him in a more expansive role, though, as he has started at shortstop against each left-handed pitcher with the exception of John Danks. Plus, the Rays did commit to Johnson on their 40- and 25-man roster over the offseason and cutting ties so quickly would be a bit unusual.
If not Johnson or Lopez, then it must be Casey Kotchman. When the Rays signed Kotchman, I wrote that his groundball-hitting ways and lack of power were the reasons he was an unsuccessful big league hitter. Guess what? Nothing has changed. Even in a small sample size, Kotchman’s groundball rate is at 59.1 percent and his ISO—at .045—is below Jason Tyner’s career .049 (remember, Tyner hit one home run over nearly 1,500 major league plate appearances).
Of course, Kotchman is hitting .318/.423/.364 right now and some may wonder how you can cut a guy hitting .300—or more importantly, with a .423 on-base percentage. It’s simple: You can acknowledge that his line to date has been fine while also knowing it won’t continue. Why won’t it continue? Kotchman will not go the entire season without striking out and because he has an incredible fortune on turning groundballs into hits. Right now, Kotchman has a .308 batting average on groundballs this season. For perspective, Ichiro Suzuki has a career .305 batting average on groundballs.
For more perspective, you can add up Kotchman’s batting average on groundballs from 2010 and 2009 and get within .030 points of .308. His previous career high is .207 and in recent years, he has gotten as high as .199 and as low as .150. Once his groundball average regresses, then Kotchman’s line will begin to take on the look of the same guy who could only find a minor league deal this offseason and would be riding buses in Triple-A if not for Manny Ramirez’s retirement.
Some will take this as an implicit endorsement of Dan Johnson, however that’s a false dichotomy. Is Johnson a better player than Kotchman? Probably—although admittedly, he hasn’t looked the part thus far in 2011. Johnson gives the Rays the flexibility to use the better first base alternatives. With Kotchman on the bench, the team is limited to playing him at first base, but (ideally) only when he can avoid stepping to the plate. With Johnson, you trust his bat more and you can toss him into the outfield or third base if needed.
And what are those first base alternatives? Johnny Damon’s broken finger tip probably means he cannot take reps at first base for the time being, but Ben Zobrist or the aforementioned Lopez could. Placing Zobrist at first base is akin to using Darin Erstad back in the day. It sucks that his defensive talents are wasted, but at the same time, you probably feel more comfortable with him there than Sean Rodriguez (who, along with Lopez, would play second base). In this scenario, Damon would DH and once his finger heals, perhaps he could take over at first with Zobrist at second and the best remaining hitter playing DH.
There is no need to make Ramirez out as a villain for his retirement, but it left the Rays a card short. Sam Fuld is okay for the time being in left field, but until the Rays promote Desmond Jennings or Brandon Guyer, the team is in need of a right-handed bat or at least a guy who can provide average production from either first base or DH. Right now, there aren’t a lot of those guys out there, perhaps someone like Jack Cust or Lyle Overbay shakes look as the deadline nears, but until then, the Rays are going to have to experiment.
Jennings arrival could actually solve the problem by itself should Damon be able to play first, as long as B.J. Upton is still around. The team could shift the weakest defender (in this case, Matt Joyce, although he isn’t that bad out there) to DH and have Jennings, Upton, and Fuld roaming. Unfortunately, that figures to be months out as well.
In the interim, the Rays have to do best with what they have, and that probably involves Johnson. Monthly splits tend to carry little value, but Johnson’s Aprils have historically been his worse month, with a cumulative OPS of 497—he has an OPS above 785 in every other month except September. Who knows if there is any substance there, but he does have two more things going for him: 1) the Rays are paying him $1 million and felt good enough about him entering the season as the starting first baseman; and 2) he doesn’t have to produce more than his career rates in order to be a superior option to Kotchman.
For those reasons, I don’t think Kotchman should become too comfortable decorating his Tropicana Field locker.