ST. PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 18: Designated hitter Felipe Lopez #45 of the Tampa Bay Rays is congratulated by Ben Zobrist after his eighth inning home run against the Chicago White Sox during the game at Tropicana Field on April 18, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
It's tempting to say that the Rays have gotten lucky with injuries over the last couple years, but it's not entirely true. The Rays have suffered their fair share of injuries: Evan Longoria missed time down the stretch in 2008 and 2010; Scott Kazmir had a slew of issues in 2008 and 2009 before being traded; BJ Upton had his shoulder issues; Carlos Pena spent time on the DL each of the last three seasons; Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis were injured at the same time last season; and J.P. Howell hasn't appeared in a game since late 2009. The Rays haven't just had injuries - they've had key players injured for extended periods of time.
Unlike other teams, though, the Rays have never been slowed down significantly by these injuries. They still made the playoffs in 2008 and 2010, two seasons in which they went through stretches of time without Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and a handful of their pitchers. The key to their success? Their replacement players. Wade Davis stepped in to replace Scott Kazmir in 2009, Jeremy Hellickson stepped in last season to replace Jeff Niemann, Willy Aybar posted a .359 wOBA while replacing Longoria in 2008, and Dan Johnson helped fill in for Carlos Pena last season. The Rays purposefully build their rosters deep, and it shows.
This year, the Rays entered the season with less depth than usual, due to a large number of their minor league players reaching the majors. On top of that, the Rays have already needed to dip into their depth when Longoria got injured and Manny retired. The Rays are still chugging along, though, and have moved into a tie for second place in the AL East, thanks in large part to the performance of this year's batch of replacements: Sam Fuld, Felipe Lopez, Elliot Johnson, and Casey Kotchman.
Here's a quick glance at how each replacement player has performed so far this season:
Fuld and Lopez have both been spectacular replacements, contributing nearly a win through their offensive value alone (Fuld's defense only adds to that), while Johnson and Kotchman have been... well, about what you'd expect. Of course, this is a very small sample, but Johnson's current wOBA is directly in line with his preseason projection, and Kotchman is hitting at a similar level to how he did last season (.270 wOBA). Kotchman wasn't acquired for his bat, though; his main value is his defense, and at the very least he's providing the Rays with a warm body until Evan Longoria comes back.
Sam Fuld has been talked about enough already, but Felipe Lopez's performance has gone largely unrecognized. He's not likely to keep hitting at his current rate -- his offensive numbers are boosted by a .370 BABIP and 22% HR/FB rate -- but that doesn't make his current performance any less valuable. I still can't explain why Maddon decided to bat him cleanup yesterday*, but he has been swinging a hot bat and hitting line drives all over the field. If Lopez continues to perform more like his 2009 self (.356 wOBA) than his 2010 self (.297 wOBA), he'll be a fine enough replacement until Longoria comes back from the DL. I still don't think his talent level is necessarily much higher than a .320 wOBA, but so far he's doing his best to prove me wrong.
*This continues to baffle me: do the Rays know something about Lopez that we don't? Maybe it was just as simple as Lopez was the best available option so Maddon took the gamble....not like there were many other options last night.
Anyway, I don't have any grand conclusions to make here: I just wanted to point out that once again, the Rays are getting strong performances from some of their replacement players. Fuld and Lopez have taken the sting off the Rays losing Manny and Longoria, and hopefully they can keep it up a bit longer until Longoria returns. This team may have less depth than the 2008-2010 Rays did, but they've still had enough to carry them through the turmoil so far.