The Rays are on the edge of contention and still have the ability to find their way to the playoffs, but things need to click. While the team is waiting on the reinforcements of Wil Myers, David DeJesus, and Ryan Hanigan, there are a few more improvements that might be available to the team here and now.
It's time to play armchair GM.
Bat Evan Longoria Third
Evan Longoria is having a down year, compared to his usual best-in-baseball self. The last thirty days are no exception, where he's batting .220/.295/.380 with a 90 wRC+ and .294 wOBA. We can attribute some of that poor performance to a .240 in-play batting average, but not entirely. By the eye test, Longoria has been struggling with pitch recognition this season, offering at far more than usual.
With his contact rates unchanged in and out of the zone, Longoria appears to be simply swinging more often than he should. His at bats against Max Scherzer last night showed that all is not lost, as Longoria laid off some excellent pitches to walk ahead of James Loney's three run homer, but consistency is still an issue.
Meanwhile, at the right time, Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce have been on fire from the 2- and 3-holes in the lineup, sporting a 160 and 152 wRC+ respectively over the last thirty days. If we agree with The Book and call the 4-hole the second most important position in the lineup, why not flip Longoria and Joyce? This would lead to more at bats for Evan as he sorts things out, and give Joyce a chance to succeed in a higher leverage position in the lineup. Maybe he'll even find his power stroke again.
Don't be afraid to platoon James Loney
Last season was a career year for James Loney at the plate, but when he was acquired some thought it was a near forgone conclusion he would need platooned. The Rays leaned into his glove, however, and he answered the lefty-on-lefty at bats with great high leverage hitting and a 123/106 wRC+ R/L split.
This season, he has yet to repeat his best year ever, to his detriment at the plate.
I love me some James Loney, but he should be limited against lefties as much as possible. #Rays pic.twitter.com/bJipozim25— Bradley Woodrum (@BradleyWoodrum) August 11, 2014
Thus far, Loney has a 2.1% walk-rate and 17% strikeout-rate against southpaws -- compared to 8.5% and 8.7% against righties -- another signal that not everything is shaping up to be 2013.
Part of the struggle looking at the numbers for Loney is a down month-or-so at the plate in June, which he has counterbalanced with a 121 wRC+ in the second half, but even that may be trending back down.
If the Rays are willing to sacrifice a little defense along the way, there might be some opportunities to bench Loney if the Rays are starting a flyball pitcher, or if the match up doesn't play to Loney's tendencies. If there's a particularly difficult lefty on the mound, and the Rays are starting - say - Hellickson, why not roll Myers over to first base and start Brandon Guyer (.366 wOBA, 139 wRC+ over last 30 days) in left field?
Stop Trusting Grant Balfour
The Mad Australian is now just the Bad Australian, having walked 38 batters in less than 48 innings, including two unintentionally in last night's loss.
"Will no one stop this bleeding?" - Daniel Day Lewis in a top hat
Balfour lost his closing job in early June and has only gotten worse since then, having steadily climbed to .294 BAA in the month of August, including seven earned runs in 8.1 IP.
The Rays brought him on because they thought he could still be an excellent reliever, and the likelihood is that he just needs to sort some things out, but when you're a small market team with limited payroll giving top dollar to a washed up closer, you have to act. Balfour is worth the gamble of a major league roster, but not when you're on the precipice of contention.
Balfour could be designated for assignment, and then passed through waivers to see if anyone bites. If another team does, the Rays might be best off letting him go. Scheduled to make the pro-rated portion of $4M for the rest of the season, then $7M in 2015, the Rays dodge a bullet in payroll alone by sending him off now. Combine that with a player who's performing below replacement level, and you have to wonder why the Rays haven't acted sooner.
There's potential that the Rays have already tried. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement if a team designate's a player off the 40-man roster with more than 3-years service time, then regardless of options remaining he has the right to become a free agent. That puts the Rays on the hook for all his 2015 salary, and it's just ten more days until the rosters expand.
If you're going to pay him and the odds of making the playoffs are slim (currently ~2%), you might as well keep him and see if you can right the ship. But if you think the Rays have some magic left in the tank, as I do, you do everything you can to sure up every facet of the team. Find a way to not put the ball in his hands for the next two weeks, or let this one go.
Keep Trusting Kevin Kiermaier
In last night's game, Grant Balfour led the eleventh inning by allowing a sharply hit line drive to right field. Kevin Kiermaier dove for the ball, and it bounced in and out of the glove, resulting in a triple when no one could back him up on the throw. Balfour then walked the next three batters. Who is to blame for the Rays loss? In the recap, Erik pointed the blame at the outfielder for taking risks:
[Gambling on diving catches is] something Kiermaier has done a lot of this year and it really needs to stop. He hasn't shown himself to be a good outfielder this year -- routinely taking horrible routes to balls -- despite a couple of highlight reel catches.
Taking a early jump and a slightly less efficient route should hardly matter when you have the speed to outrun The Flash. If his routes are not perfectly direct, or if his confidence carries a little risk, does that make KK a bad defender? By no means!
I like my outfielders to have a bit of reckless abandon, to sacrifice their bodies for the game changing catch, to rocket launch the ball from the outfield and fire home. The Rays had that in a young Carl Crawford. They had that in the legendary Sam Fuld. Now they have that in Kevin Kiermaier. No fear in launching the ball toward home plate, and the arm to gun down any runner at the plate. He's going to miss now and then, but with experience? Kiermaier will be what you wish Brett Gardner was from the start.
Ian followed Erik this morning with a counterpoint from Fangraphs:
Kevin Kiermaier UZR: 587 innings (mostly in right, some in center), 50 runs above average per 150 games.
BIS also has praise for KK as the fifth best outfielder in baseball, according to their defensive runs saved above average metric. Beyond the metrics, however, is the eye test. Scouting reports indicated during the off-season that Kiermaier was likely the best defensive outfielder in the minors, and his range and performance thus far have justified those musings. Keith Law even ranks Kiermaier the would-be rookie of the year, if not for international free agents.
Another argument floated recently for benching or designating KK has been his bat, mired in a 39 wRC+ slump over the last thirty days, but I would ask you hold your horses. This stretch has been bad, but with 263 plate appearances under his belt, KK's overall performance has been strong enough to still give him the second highest wOBA (.343) and wRC+ (124) on the roster this season, trailing only Ben Zobrist, and just barely.
And let's not forget the sudden burst of power. Nine home runs on the season matches his minor league total over the last two years, and his speed will continue to propel Kiermaier to doubles and triples every time he's able to launch the ball into the gap. So what if this kid has occasionally reckless confidence, he's here to play and ready to contribute in a meaningful way. He wants the ball hit to him. That has value too.