The Tampa Bay Rays travel to Chicago to face off against the White Sox after an abysmal 0-5 start to the 2011 season, which leaves many wondering if their bats were stolen from Evan Longoria, David Price, and Reid Brignac's apartment during Spring Training. I know, lame joke, but what is not a joke is the Rays' .136/.217/.260 triple slash line and the fact that they are dead last in the league in fWAR.
It is still very early and sample sizes are very small at this point, but I do believe a change has to be made and I believe that change is in the form of Dan Johnson being benched. Don't get me wrong, there are few Rays that are above reproach at this point in the season. One of them is B.J. Upton, who has a pair of homers and is hitting .333/.333/.778 despite being caught stealing twice and thrown out at the plate once. The other is Sam Fuld, who has played an incredible left field and done well at the plate and on the bases in limited duty.
Yes, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez are a combined 2-for-32, but their careers show us that they will hit in time. Dan Johnson is hitting a dismal .053/.053/.105 in 19 plate appearances and is swinging at close to 50% of the pitches he is seeing. Oh, and he has a -1 DRS so far, suggesting his defense is less than stellar.
This is not solely a case of sitting a guy because of 19 PAs either. Don't look at this as an overreaction to those 19 PAs, it's not. Johnson's career at the plate has been that of a league-average hitter who plays a position that demands a lot more than league-average at the plate. If you take out his rookie year, he has a career major league line of .226/.334/.400. Even worse, over his tenure with the Rays he has hit .181/.305/.381 in 187 plate appearances with an OPS+ of 87. This isn't the largest sample size, but coupled with his age and ability to hit Triple-A pitching, the evidence seems to be pointing to Dan Johnson being closer to Crash Davis than Carlos Pena, another late bloomer.
If Johnson were a young player - or even in the 27-29 age range - then I'd say keep him out there and let him work through it. He'd then have a chance to be a part of the Rays' long-term plans, but a young player Johnson is not. He is going to be 32 in early August and his trends in K% and BABIP are starting to prove to me that his lack of success is not due to inexperience, but pitchers figuring him out and large amounts of weak contact proven by his 16.2% line drive rate from 2006-2011. That line drive rate is tied for 15th worst among players with at least 1000 PAs over that same time period.
Who then replaces Johnson at first? I hate the idea of wasting Zobrist's glove at first, and the same goes for Sean Rodriguez. John Jaso could more than handle the job, but do the Rays really want to play their two catchers at the same time, especially with both having significant splits? Nope. The Diamondbacks seem determined to let Russell Branyan sit the bench in Arizona, could a trade be possible? Sure, but not likely at this point. Desmond Jennings would be a great option but the Rays believe, as do I, that he needs more time at Triple-A and it would be wise to keep his arb-clock at bay for now. I propose that the Rays move Damon and his tired arm to first and let Fuld and his stellar defense play left field.
Damon will figure it out at the plate, he always has. The 29 year old Fuld has a career .365 OBP, albeit in only 159 PAs but may only need reps to prove that he can handle the extra playing time. Either way, many out there, myself included, have petitioned for Johnson to get more reps and it has led to a below league-average hitter in over 1000 PAs since 2006. At what point to we stop asking for the extra reps? For me, that time has come.
It may have been a pipe dream for some, but I see the Rays as contenders this season. Only one team has ever dug themselves out of an 0-5 hole to come back and make the playoffs and now is the time to make a change if the Rays believe the playoffs are still in sight. The small sample size issue has saved Johnson long enough, but the evidence that he does not belong starting at first in the Major Leagues is deeper than just 19 PAs. A move should be made, and I would rather see Sam Fuld get the reps because he has a better shot at being part of the Rays' plans beyond 2011.