Versatility is, no doubt, one way a prospect can hasten his path to the majors, and versatility is certainly a characteristic valued by the Rays organization.
That's something Richie Shaffer and Mikie Mahtook (who showed off some of their tools in 2015), as well as new 40-man roster additions like Taylor Motter and Daniel Robertson have in common: they all can play multiple positions if and when required.
Here we'll focus on position players. How versatile are the current crop of major league ready prospects?
Rays 2016 Roster Versatility
Before we even get to the 2016 Rays Rookies, let's evaluate the depth that already exists on the team.
I left Evan Longoria, Kevin Kiermaier, and Steve Souza off the table because they're essentially single position players, holding down 3B, CF, and RF respectively. Here are the remaining position players and the positions they are able to play based on past performance:
|Games by Position - All Levels|
It's important to note that the Rays will likely have to decide on whether to carry Franklin or Beckham as bench roles are determined; the elimination of one of these two players will reduce the overall versatility. That may be why they've already decided to give Steve Pearce opportunities to work all over the field, including 3B, where he's seen minimal time.
Even with that caveat, this is a versatile group of players. There are 3 players with experience at 1B and in CF (including KK), and the remainder have at least 4 options or more. Kevin Cash's many options are even broader when we add in the likely rookie cohort for 2016.
This isn't an article about the quality that each player brings to each position, as there are a multitude of opinions on how well a player is suited to play a position. We can dissect that another time. The focus here is that there's a significant amount of experience all over the field, and it's the same story among the rookies.
Rays 2016 Rookie Versatility
The table below provides a broad overview of how much experience each (in my view) MLB-ready player has playing different positions since they turned pro.
|Games by Position - All Levels|
Now, some of the players listed are more ready than others to contribute to the MLB roster. I would argue that the top 4 on this list are ready now, and that the remainder could use some more time, but that's fairly subjective. Pressed, any of them could have a direct and positive impact on the Rays roster.
The other note is that the last 5 on the list are not on the 40-man roster, something that makes it harder to incorporate them, but presumably if they were called upon it would be in response to an injury (or trade) that would free up roster space.
What is interesting as we separate the group above into the top 4 and bottom 5 is that each position is covered in each portion. Essentially, the Rays have 2 waves of replacements ready to roll for the 2016 season - those on the 40-man roster, and those pushing those on the 40-man roster.
Not only does that keep the pressure on players to perform well, but it serves as pretty impressive security for the team to use as bumps and bruises force their hand.
That list doesn't even include Juniel Querecuto who has 69 GP at 2B, 57 GP at 2B, and 373 GP at SS. In short, the Rays are stocked with options from AA upwards. We also need to remember that this depth remains even after the team lost Tyler Goeddel and Joey Rickard in the rule 5 draft.
How Does That Impact 2016?
It's all well and good to say that the Rays have versatility to work with; how could it impact the Rays season in 2016?
In searching for answers, we need to consider how injury prone the Rays have been in recent times. The graphic embedded in this tweet from @ManGamesLostMLB suggests a correlation between a team's staying healthy and winning the World Series:
As you can see above, the Rays have lost a significant number of games to injury. They're not the most injury prone by any means, but they have experienced enough losses to make depth a key component of how well their season plays out.
In looking at teams that were able to win the World Series, it's interesting to note how many depth pieces became key components of their playoff runs. Whether it's the Cardinals, Giants, or Royals, each team has called on players who were not on the opening day 40-man roster to play vital roles and fill in the gaps.
To get a better feel for what the 2016 Rays may require as backups, however, let's look at the 2015 season in particular:
That, to me, is the tell that points to the need for a tremendous amount of versatility in Tampa Bay. The recent history of requiring help at various positions is evident, and the more high-quality replacements that are available at all positions, the better the chances that the team make the playoffs.
Luckily for the Rays, what the charts also point to is that the Rays have been able to get replacements that provide a positive impact when required. It's not hard to tell how that happened when you consider the short-term performances of players like Curt Casali, Mikie Mahtook, and Richie Shaffer in 2015.
If anything, the ability and willingness to use young players when needed has been a historical strength of the Rays and part of what's kept them at or above the .500 level.
What I'm pointing to specifically for this season, however, is that there's more ammunition to use than ever before on the active roster, in the 40-man roster, and beyond. And it's something that could lead to a much better outcome in the standings.
The Outliers: Non-Rookies
The list provided above doesn't even cover all of the options the Rays have at their disposal. There were more players brought in to provide depth.
The availability of Jeff Decker and Kyle Roller provide could allow the Rays to avoid calling up prospects prematurely. Decker can cover any OF position, and Roller has some pop which could play in short periods at 1B/DH. We saw the same last year with the promotion of Allan Dykstra.
Most times, if a team is going to promote a player they want it to be for a significant period of time. The excitement and deflation of a promotion and quick demotion can distract a player's attention and throw off their season.
If the Rays can avoid that in times of short need, it helps ensure they don't make any mistakes.
It's hard to quantify and evaluate just how deep a team is at each position at how that depth may be used in an upcoming season. However, with the names listed above and the knowledge of how impressive their skills are overall, you have to be content with the options the Rays have built in and how they may help them through 2016.
The Rays have some decisions to make with their bench, and if a trade isn't forthcoming it may include trying to pass a player or two through waivers. If that happens, and a player is claimed, the tables above suggest that the Rays will not be unduly affected. If anything, this could provide the opportunity for a talented player to show he can play to the MLB level.
There's a very good chance that we'll see a number of these versatile rookies in Tampa Bay before 2016 is in the books. Mahtook and Shaffer are almost guaranteed a look at some point, if not at the beginning of the season. Brett isn't far behind, but most intriguing of all is Motter who can literally play all over the field. Expect to see this foursome at a minimum, with more to follow as required.
It's going to be a fun season watching these talented prospects compete for playing time. The competition should bring out the best in all of them, and I don't think there's ever been a time with so much competition among so many high-quality options.
It will be interesting to see whether defensive positional flexibility continues to be something the Rays target in their trades and encourage in their player development.