Emotions have been running high over hometown high school hero Casey Kotchman's return to the bay area or at least to the organization whose Major League Baseball team plays here. Kotchman's struggles over the past few seasons and his strong Spring are well documented. Joe Maddon made it fairly clear Dan Johnson will be the starting first baseman for this club which means Casey Kotchman will be headed to Durham to start the year. It's the right decision in terms of both expected production and roster flexibility. It's really not all that different from Dan Johnson having to bide his time last year waiting for Pat Burrell's continued Tampa Bay fizzle and the Hank Blalock experiment. Burrell had loads of capital invested in him and Blalock had an opt-out date forcing the Rays hand to give him a test drive or lose him forever. The question that is worth discussing is what the likely situation would be that would put Kotchman in a Tampa Bay big league uniform.
Casey Kotchman is an excellent defensive first baseman but is limited to the position of first base only. So who would have to get hurt in order for Kotchman to get a call? The conversation must first start with the incumbant Dan Johnson. Johnson has played both third base and the corner outfield in the past but struggled mightily in small samples at each position. It is likely that Johnson would field a position other than first base only in the event of an in-game emergency like when catcher Shawn Riggans manned left field for an inning or two. The Rays also have an option to play 3rd base on the roster in Sean Rodriguez, and Felipe Lopez likely will be available in Durham. Kotchman likely will need an injury to either Manny Ramirez or Dan Johnson to have a shot. In the event Ramirez goes down, moving Johnson back to the designated hitter role would be an option allowing Kotchman's glove to play at first.
For Kotchman to even be considered a possibility he must first demonstrate in Durham that his swing truly has found a groove to where he could be at least a league average bat. For his career Kotchman has been an 8.8 runs above average first baseman over 150 games, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. A league average bat (.327 wOBA) would make Kotchman worth slightly less than a win not accounting for position over a season (doesn't matter within the context of a lineup). Under this scenario, Damon would stay in left and Johnson would serve as the designated hitter.
An alternative would be to have Johnny Damon give up the glove and serve as either the 1st baseman or more likely the designated hitter. Sean Rodriguez has shown he can play a decent to good outfield, but has yet to demonstrate he can hit right-handed pitching at the major league level. Last week Jason Hanselman applied Sean Rodriguez's minor league platoon splits to his 2011 projections to come up with pessimistic/average/optimistic cases for Rodriguez's wOBA vs right-handed pitching of .284/.300/.315. Rodriguez's plus glove probably would not be enough to keep a still-hitting Kotchman down in Durham.
Catcher Robinson Chirinos had a monster Spring that put Kotchman's to shame. He could be available to serve as the DH or to catch moving John Jaso or Kelly Shoppach to the DH role if Ramirez were to get hurt. Chirinos is on the 40 man roster so no maneuver would be necessary. Chirinos has only had 62 plate appearances in AAA to-date so an early season injury may not make him an option in the Rays eyes early, but later in the season it could boil down to who seems to be hitting better in AAA.
This brings us to the most compelling alternative, top flight outfield prospect Desmond Jennings. It's reasonable to project Jennings glove as about a win or 10 runs above average in left field. So what is the projection for Jennings at the plate? ZiPs has Jennings forecasted for a slash line of .268/.339/.378 or pretty close to the league average of .260/.327/.407. Basically moving Damon to DH and putting Jennings in left is roughly similar to putting Kotchman at first and leaving Damon in left. Both moves introduce about a win of defense while being average at the plate. So if the expectations are similar what is the preferable option?
Jennings has a a 40-man roster spot so no asset would have to be let go. However there are significant benefits to leaving Jennings in Durham, namely saving service time to both maximize as much of his individual peak seasons in a team-controlled fashion as possible, and to save him him to replace BJ Upton likely before next season begins. Its harder to find a centerfielder, and there will be less pressure for Jennings to hit at a high level from the get-go. I made the case for this here. There are also base-running advantages worth considering for Desmond Jennings.
On the other hand, Casey Kotchman would require a member of the 40-man roster to be let go or shuttled off to the 60-day disabled list. I don't think anyone would shed a tear if a Mike Ekstrom or Jose Lobaton were let go. It would cost the Rays a little extra dough if Kotchman's $750k is only his major league rate. It also would mean the Rays could not option him back down to Durham.
So what's the best option for the club in the event of an injury to Johnson or Ramirez? I'd suggest going with Kotchman (again assuming he hits in Durham), paying him his major league salary and either parting ways later on or trying to move him for a bullpen arm. Of course there is also the unlikely possibility that he rediscovers his rookie form and the Rays would be happy to carry him. Having a veteran with somewhat limited upside to preserve optimal service time usage for prospects is exactly what this front office brings in guys like Kotchman for, even if it costs a few runs difference on the base paths and Mike Ekstrom. He may not be the most exciting and fresh option, but Team Friedman wouldn't have brought Casey Kotchman in without identifying ways he can help the club outside of increasing the Spring gate at Port Charlotte.