May 23, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Drew Sutton (44) hits a double in the second inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
The Rays had to make do without Evan Longoria for 85 games this season until his return last night. In his absence, eight different players have manned the hot corner with the unenviable task of filing the shoes of the franchise player that was just ranked as the second-best defensive third baseman in the American League by Baseball America.
The struggle to replace Longoria skills at the hot corner pale in comparison to the struggle the team went through to replace his spot on the 25-man roster with a bat to help make up for the lack of production from their missing star. At the time of his injury, no other player had driven in as many runs as Longoria since 6/1/11 and only Dan Uggla had hit more home runs. It is simply impossible to replace that kind of presence on the open market, as we witnessed from the sextet of names added and sometimes subtracted from the roster this season.
The team has stepped outside of the organization four times this season to bring in offensive help. The first addition was claiming Brandon Allen off waivers from Oakland and Allen made an immediate impact driving in drawing a based loaded walk in his first game to drive in the winning run and followed that up with a mammoth home run off Jordan Walden to win the next game. Even when Longoria went down four days later, Allen played sparingly in May before going to the disabled list with a foot injury and eventually disappearing with transaction shenanigans until his contract was sold overseas.
Rich Thompson, a real-life version of Crash Davis, was acquired on May 16th when the team found themselves short-handed on the outfield depth chart. Thompson had not played in the majors since a brief cup of coffee in 2004 with Kansas City and had accumulated over 5,700 plate appearances in the minors while spending time in four different organizations. Thompson got his elusive first major league career hit in his second game but that would be the only time he reached base in 17 plate appearances and he was sent to Durham when Jeff Keppinger's broken foot healed.
After years of Tommy Rancel pining for him, the Rays finally acquired Drew Sutton by purchasing him from Pittsburgh to the roster to help at third base after Keppinger hit the disabled list. Sutton had multiple hit games in each of his first three games and in six of his 18 games but also struck out in one-third of his plate appearances and was essentially given back to the Pirates on June 21st. Sutton's .271/.314/.354 slash line was very respectable but the team had to clear a spot to pick up Brooks Conrad, a player they had liked in the off-season.
Conrad, like the other acquisitions, made an instant impact as his bat was a big part of the team's success in taking two of three games in Philadelphia during interleague play. Like the others, Conrad too saw his production fall off precipitously thereafter as he hit just .135/.167/.308 and struck out in 26 of his remaining 54 plate appearances before behind designated for assignment last week.
The same day Longoria was injured, the Rays signed the aging Hideki Matsui. After spending a few weeks in the minor leagues, Matsui was activated on May 29th and homered in his second plate appearance after nearly hitting one out in his first plate appearance. Two games later, he hit a first inning home run as part of a five-run first inning against the Orioles. What followed after that may have been the worst period of offensive production ever by a member of the Rays organization. In his remaining 94 plate appearances, Matsui had just one extra base hit and a .364 OPS. He too would finally be released in late June after 103 plate appearances.
Most recently, Ryan Roberts was acquired as yet another guy to play the hot corner. He too made an instant impact as he went 3-4 in his debut and hit a home run. While he has played the steadiest third base of all the replacements at the hot corner, he has hit .088/.225/.118 since that big debut in a Rays uniform and would appear to be a prime candidate to meet the same fate as the other five players in this story once Luke Scott returns from the disabled list.
This sextet of players has accumulated 337 plate appearances for the Rays this season which represents eight percent of the team's total. Their combined slash line is an anemic .165/.228/.273 with a collective wOBA of just .227.
In an ideal world, these types of players would have limited use which would minimize the damage but it has not been an ideal season for the Rays which has forced inferior hitters into less than optimal usage. The fact that the worst member of this sextet received the most plate appearances is something that remains one of the more puzzling story lines of this season.