When platoon players suddenly stopping mashing against opposite-handed pitchers, they become expendable.
It's been three full seasons since the Rays acquired Sean Rodriguez from the Angels for Scott Kazmir. While the popular opinions tend to be that the Rays fared poorly in that trade, they have still come out on the winning side despite Sean Rodriguez never living up to his full potential.
Kazmir pitched well for the Angels down the stretch in 2009, but he flopped hard in the playoffs (2 games, 10 innings pitched, 7.59 ERA) and his Angels career just went downhill from there. He ended up costing the Angels $20 million and performed like a replacement level pitcher over the following two seasons, while the Rays have received a total of +5 wins in value from Sean Rodriguez over the past three years. He may not be the slugging middle infielder that we were all hoping he'd become, but that doesn't mean the trade was a waste. In fact, Rodriguez has contributed plenty of value to the Rays through his positional flexibility, above average defense, and lefty-mashing.
That said, Rodriguez is walking on thin ice this season. His offense has worsened every year that he's been in the majors, hitting a nadir last season at 29 percent below average (.269 wOBA). He's still cheap, under team control, and provides great flexibility off the bench, but on the Rays' current roster, he's become highly replaceable.
At second base, the Rays have an absurd amount of depth: Ben Zobrist will likely start their most days, but Kelly Johnson and Ryan Roberts can both play there as well. At shortstop, Ben Zobrist proved last season that he can be an adequate backup if Yunel Escobar needs some time off. And in the outfield, the Rays have a multitude of options as well: Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Sam Fuld, Kelly Johnson, and (yet again) Ben Zobrist. The Rays even have multiple backups at third base, considering both Kelly Johnson and Ryan Roberts can play third if needed.
With this much depth already on the roster, there's really only one spot for Rodriguez: as a platoon mate for James Loney at first base. He'll likely find some time onto the field at other positions as well, but unless his bat rebounds considerably, Rodriguez could find himself as the last man off the bench.
And here's the extra kicker: out of all the players on the Rays bench right now, Rodriguez is the only one with options remaining. Kelly Johnson, Ryan Roberts, Luke Scott, Sam Fuld -- none of these players can be optioned to the minors without being made available to every other team in the majors. So once Wil Myers is ready to get his call up to The Show, guess who's going to be the first one boarding the place to Durham? Yup, it'll be S-Rod.
So in many ways, Sean Rodriguez's performance this year will be huge in determining his future fate with the Rays. They will surely hold onto him after this year due to his defensive versatility, but can he play his way back into a regular spot on the Rays roster in 2014? Or will he settle into the role of being a new and improved Elliot Johnson, shuttling back and forth from Durham to the majors multiple times a year?
In my mind, all of these questions will be answered by one main thing: will Rodriguez go back to crushing left-handed pitchers again? Because despite his reputation, last season Rodriguez actually hit for less power against left-handed pitchers than he did against right-handed pitchers.
This is baffling, to say the least. Going into 2012, Rodriguez had been fantastic against lefties, posting a .200+ ISO against lefties in 2011. His batting line against lefties in 2011 was one of the best on the Rays (.273/.389/.475), while in 2012, his overall performance against lefties was below league average (.228/.368/.287). He was still taking his walks against lefties, but his power all but vanished entirely.
Why did this happen? I don't have any solid answers -- and I'd love to hear thoughts below -- but my guess is this question would be more easily answered through scouting information than stats. Looking at the stats, I'm not seeing any appreciable change in Rodriguez's batted ball, swing rates, or pitch values stats. And using the Baseball Prospectus heat maps, it looks like Rodriguez generates most of his power against lefties on over-the-middle and inside pitchers...except last season, his power vanished entirely.
Were pitchers pumping him with outside pitches? Was his bat speed slower, so he couldn't get around as fast against those inside pitches? We're talking about a very small sample size of data, and considering the extreme nature of the change, it seems most likely that there was something going on with A) his mechanics, B) how opposing pitchers were attacking him, C) an undisclosed injury, or D) some combination thereof.
So which S-Rod will show up for the Rays in 2013? The left-masher from 2010 and 2011? Or the well-below-league-average bat from 2012? Either way, Rodriguez likely won't last in the majors for the full season thanks to his option and Wil Myers, but he'll need to find some answers this season if he wants to secure a roster spot in 2014.