The Tampa Bay Rays are currently 5.5 games back in the standings of a packed AL East, last place in the division, while Baltimore, Boston and New York are all within two games at the top.
There are areas to place the blame, namely the pitching, and particularly the fact the Rays are dealing with only 40% of their starting rotation taking the mound, with one of the five out for the season. But I'd like to start on the other side of the ball.
Before I do, however, let me be clear: Where you should not be placing blame is the starting position players, who rank second in the American League WAR standings.
Part of that dominance is driven by a team on base percentage of .333 ranks sixth in all of baseball, and sustained by defense, in spite of whatever gaffs you might be remembering from the last week of play. The only parts of the offense's performance not trending toward the top is slugging, which ranks 14th (though with an ISO equal to Boston), and stolen bases, which have totaled a mere 15 (the third highest total in the East).
Furthermore, the Rays likely have the strongest plate discipline in the majors right now, with the lowest swing rate outside the strike zone in all of baseball (24.5%), and the fourth highest contact rate inside the zone (89.2%). The team also has the fifth highest overall contact rate (81.9%), tied with the Athletics for the second lowest swinging strike rate in the majors (7.5%), and the fifth highest walk rate (9.5% - better than any team in the National League).
But note that I said starting position players.
The Rays bench is made up of Jose Molina, Sean Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe, and Brandon Guyer.
Those wRC's are out of control, so let's give them a but of context:
The only bench player performing up to snuff is S-Rod, and Molina is buoyed by his framing skills. The other two don't have much of an excuse outside "small sample size" qualification.
Another loose measure of performance is OPS, where .700 seems to be a good dividing line for bench players. Forsythe has a .514 OPS, and Guyer .406. Neither of those are justifiable performance for a major league team unless there is some major run prevention coming out of the glove, or run creation coming out of the cleats, but neither player is being deployed often enough in the field or the base paths to make a difference.
In fact, I would say both are in enough of a rut, that I don't see how a pinch hit performance for Logan Forsythe against King Felix later this evening will change or improve anything with his game. I would rather see both Logan and Guyer receive regular playing time in Triple-A until they are warm enough to perform at a major league level.
Under normal circumstances I might say to wait until June, but with the Rays teetering on the edge of contention, why waste tries on a player who is absolutely cold?
The Durham Bulls have a +25 run differential and plenty of bats the Rays could call upon. The notables:
A single asterisk denotes left handed, and two asterisks for switch hitting. The Rays have had several situations where a left handed bat was sorely needed of the bench, but wasn't available this season. If they were to call a player up, it would likely need to be a left handed bat. More detail on those names:
Betemit is tantalizing as a switch hitting option, but he is also the lowest performer of the bunch. Part of that could be attributed to a slow start, thanks to recovery from injury, but he has power and projectability as a major league player. You'll see in a moment that Fontenot is just about replacement level. That leaves two names, and infielder and an outfielder to match the current bench players in question.
Where does room on the roster come from? The Rays could either exercise Logan's option to give him full playing time in the minors, or waive Guyer and risk another team scooping him up. I would suggest the former, allowing the Rays to retain all their assets, but it's reasonable they would choose Guyer. The problem is that their replacements may not do much better over the long run.
If you would allow me some quick and dirty math, let's give each player a 25% penalty as a transition to the majors, and let's see if they would still hold up against the bench.
The lowest walk rate of the bunch is still better than the best between Forsythe and Guyer, but the focus should be placed on wOBA's. Logan Forsythe's ZiPS score for the rest of the season is a .286 wOBA with a .304 OBP. Brandon Guyer's rest of season projects at a .300 wOBA with a .299 OBP. Guyer's replacement for the outfield, Kiermaier, slightly underperforms when given a 25% penalty, and Figueroa's is nearly a wash with Forsythe. On defense, neither of the minor leaguers would gain enough time to make a last impact without an injury, and each would probably also suffer from a lack of plate appearances.
At the start of the season there was no stronger advocate than myself for Guyer to join the major league roster, but that came with an expectation that he would get playing time. I believed the Rays would use Guyer in left field on a regular basis in the platoon of left field, allowing him to showcase defense, and then pinch run with him often to swipe bags late in games that began with a righty on the mound. That hasn't happened, and just last week the Rays chose Forsythe as the pinch runner over Guyer. It's clear they don't agree with my assessment of the young outfielder's ability.
That doesn't really impact the decision, though. The Rays bench has severely underperformed, and may not even be properly used, but I don't see much of a season long improvement to be had over a full season' sworn. Wait for injuries, they will come. It doesn't satisfy left handed struggles, or the need to give some rutted players more low leverage PA's, but it's the best course of action.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Minor League Central.