Spring Training Battle Royale: Elliot Johnson vs. Felipe Lopez

There are only a few battles for roster spots with the Rays this Spring Training. There are a handful of names competing for three open bullpen spots, and Casey Kotchman is around to supposedly keep Dan Johnson on his toes (I don't believe it's a real competition), but the only other competition is between Elliot Johnson and Felipe Lopez for the final bench spot. Since things are moving along slowly right now, let's take a look at the two of them and see which might be better suited for the spot.

All Rays fans should know about Elliot Johnson by this point. He's spent the past four seasons in Triple-A, and he had his fifteen-minutes of fame when he knocked over Francisco Cervelli during Spring Training in 2008. He's a scrappy utility infielder that won't excite anyone with his bat (projected for a .302 wOBA in the majors this year), but from all reports he's a good defensive player that can play all around the infield and moonlight in the outfield. He's also got some speed, stealing 30 bases last season in Triple-A at an 83% success rate. He's also out of options this season, meaning he would need to clear through waivers before the Rays could demote him to the minors.

Felipe Lopez, on the other hand, is quite the different player. He's been in the majors since 2001, playing primarily at second base and shortstop, and his career has resembled a seismograph; some seasons he's been spectacular, posting nearly 4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as recently as 2009, but the majority of years he's played like a replacement level player. He's played all around the diamond, but his defense has been below average at every position. The Rays signed him to a minor-league contract this off-season, meaning he can be sent to the minors to start the season, but they also paid him $1M. This suggests to me that the Rays plan to use him at some point this year.

Lopez is the better player offensively while Johnson is better defensively, but the question is how much better offensively. Lopez is projected for a .323 wOBA, but he's a high variance player and has the upside of posting a .340-.350 wOBA if he has one of his good seasons. Johnson doesn't have this upside, and will instead probably post a wOBA in the .300-.320 range.

So basically, it's a crapshoot. If Lopez has one of his infrequent good offensive years, then even with his poor defense, he'd be a more valuable player than Johnson. However, if he performs closer to his projection of a .323 wOBA, Johnson's defense likely makes him the better option. The question comes down to what the Rays think of Lopez's bat, and what they're looking for in this final roster spot.

The Rays are stocked to the gills with depth, and it's going to be difficult enough for Joe Maddon to find playing time for all the regulars. On any given day, at least one player that could otherwise be starting will be riding the bench: Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson, Reid Brignac, Shoppach/Jaso, you get the picture. This depth provides Maddon with plenty of late-inning weapons off the bench in every game, and it also makes this final roster spot a bit odd. The Rays don't necessarily need a back-up second baseman, first baseman, right fielder, etc: they already have internal options that could cover all those positions. 

So what does Maddon want out of this final spot? Does he want another late-game defensive replacement, or does he want another offensive weapon off his bench? I could see him going either way, although due to Lopez's contract, we'll likely see two scenarios play out: either Lopez will start the season in Triple-A and be called up at some point, or he'll start the season with the Rays and be kept around to see what he can do. My guess is Lopez goes the Hank Blalock route and starts the season in Triple-A, but this decision probably comes down to what the Rays scouts think of his bat after seeing him in action more.

Whichever way Maddon decides, remember, it's just the 25th man on the roster. If this is one of the biggest competitions we have to watch this Spring Training, the Rays are in pretty good shape.

I just realized upon finishing this that I probably should have included Joe Inglett in this discussion as well. Whoops.

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