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At what positions do the Rays need to add depth?
With Pitchers and Catchers report only around 22 days away, we are approaching the conclusion of the off season. However, the Rays are still far from done shaping their roster. Though the starting positions will garner the majority of attention and speculation, a critical part of roster construction is depth. As we saw last year, a number of injuries and wacky scenarios (Beckham suspension, Bush incident, etc..) can leave a team reliant upon the quantity and quality of its depth.
Here is a brief look at how the Rays stack up, in terms of depth, at every position.
1B: The starter figures to be James Loney. Since first base is considered an easy position to play, especially for infielders, the Rays should never find themselves is a scenario in which they do not have a player capable of playing first base. The main question is if the Rays want the player playing first base. Should someone like Sean Rodriguez or Ryan Roberts occupy the position following an injury or disastrous performance by Loney, the Rays would receive mediocre offensive production from a position that demands offense. The Rays could move Zobrist to first base, but that would only shift the hole to his former position, making it no different than moving Rodriguez or Roberts to first. The Rays could also just move their DH (whoever they sign) to first base and use the DH as a rotating rest spot should the need arise. As far as the minor leagues go, Henry Wrigley is a minor league free agent, Brandon Allen is in Japan, Dan Johnson is here no more, and Leslie Anderson is not an enticing option. Vogt can play the position, but he needs to show he can hit. Acquiring a first base option to stash in AAA should be one of the Rays main priorities.
2B/3B: You normally see similar, if not the same, players act as depth for these two positions, so I will group them together. At the major league level, Zobrist, Rodriguez, and Roberts are all viable options. Elliot Johnson and Reid Brignac should struggle to stay on the roster past spring training, so they are gone unless they accept a demotion to the minor leagues. In AAA, there is a collection of useful pieces. Tim Beckham has yet to show much offense in Durham, but he should be ready as soon as he hits or the Rays deem him so. Chris Gimenez can play third base, but considering that his offense is not considered good enough for a catcher, he is not a desirable option. Cole Figueroa, a piece in the Jason Bartlett trade, offers speed and defense, but he won't offer much in the power department. Regardless, he is still a solid option. Earlier this winter, the Rays traded for Vince Belnome, who has a .901 OPS in his minor league career. Unfortunately, he has played in many extreme offensive environments, his defense is solid rather than spectacular, and he profiles as more of a utility player, never having been much of a prospect. Finally, the Rays also have Mike Fontenot, who might be the first option out of Durham. During his seven years of MLB time, Fontenot has a .265/.332/.401 batting line, good for 5.5 WAR in 1586 PAs. His best position defensively is second base. Further down the depth chart, minor league signing Jason Bourgeois has played some second base, but his bat is very weak for the position. All in all, the Rays are pretty well equipped to overcome an injury at second or third base.
SS: The Yunel Escobar trade did wonders to solidify the Rays depth at shortstop. He is the starter, and Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez can both play the position capably enough. If Elliot Johnson or Reid Brignac manages to hang around, then they are also options. In AAA, Beckham and Cole Figueroa can both play a little bit of SS, but profile better at second of third base. Hak-Ju Lee is not ready, but, if he hits, he could emerge as an option later in the season. Shawn O'Malley doesn't amount to much, but he is still available if everyone in front of him is injured.
C: At the major league level, Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton will split the catching duties. Chris Gimenez and Robinson Chirinos are the top options in AAA. Gimenez hit much better in the minors after tweaking his swing, but his bat probably is not worthy of a major league job. Health questions engulf Chirinos, who suffered a severe concussion a little less than a year ago that took him out for the entire 2012 season. He could return to form and emerge as a serious candidate, but that is unlikely. Things could get very ugly if Molina misses extended time, but finding quality depth at the catching position is difficult.
DH: Anyone can play DH; the issue is finding someone who can hit. Since everyone is an option, I won't delve into this extensively. The Rays have yet to sign or trade for their starting DH. If said player goes down with an injury, the Rays could shift Joyce to DH (as soon as Myers is up). They could also use it as a rotating rest spot or to gain a platoon advantage.
COF: As it stands, the Rays do not have a set in stone starter for the left field position. With Jennings shifting to center field following Upton's departure, the position is vacant. Joyce will fill in the right field spot. The Rays could use a Fuld and right handed bat (think Guyer) platoon. With Zobrist flexibility, the Rays could also work out a scenario in which Fuld and Roberts platoon, with Zobrist shifting between second base and left field. Wil Myers owns the future to one of the corner outfield spots, but the Rays need to find a solution until his super 2 date passes. Fuld and Guyer are both back up options, with Fuld appearing to be a lock for a roster spot and Guyer most likely heading to Durham to wear off any post-injury rust. Rich Thompson can also play corner outfield, but, as we saw last year, he is a poor option. Jason Bourgeois, another Rays minor league signing, has been unimpressive in his 497 MLB PAs spanning 5 seasons, but he offers speed and contact ability. Stephen Vogt is capable of handling a corner outfield spot, but his defense is poor. In addition to signing a right handed corner outfielder, the Rays could use some extra depth.
CF: Unless the Rays sign or trade for an established center fielder, Desmond Jennings is a lock for the starting position. Behind him is a severe lack of quality options. If Jennings goes down, a common occurrence over his career, the Rays would be stuck with Rich Thompson and possibly Jason Bourgeois as the only guys really capable of handling center field defensively. Sean Rodriguez, Wil Myers, and even Ben Zobrist could cover in an emergency, but they are very poor defensive options at best.
Bullpen: As it stands, Rodney, Peralta, McGee, Hernandez, and Ramos are the leading candidates for the pen. Other options include Brandon Gomes, Frank De Los Santos, Dane De La Rosa, Alex Torres, and J.D. Martin. Expect the Rays to add two more major league arms as well as an assortment of projects, specialists, and interesting guys on minor league deals.
Starting Rotation: The rotation, barring an injury, is set to include David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Jeff Niemann. The AAA rotation should feature Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Torres, Alex Colome, and Mike Montgomery. Archer is about MLB ready, Odorizzi and Colome could use some more AAA starts, and Torres is ready if he shows pre-2012 command. Montgomery needs to make major strides to earn consideration, but he has the talent to do just that. Roberto Hernandez is also an option for the rotation. I don't anticipate the Rays adding much, if any, starting rotation depth.
In summary, the Rays need to add depth at first base, catcher, center field, and the bullpen.