Several jobs on the Rays remain up for grabs with a little over one week to go before opening day. One job that’s not open is second base, and that’s because it belongs Logan Forsythe, who Kevin Cash has just designated to fill the Rays' lead-off spot.
Two Rays position players finished in top 15 in the American League in WAR in 2015 -- Kevin Kiermaier and Logan Forsythe. Forsythe achieved career highs in home runs with 17, batting average with .281, and stolen bases with 9. Forsythe’s 17 home runs last season were one less than he had hit lifetime in the major leagues prior to last year.
He finished second on the Rays in home runs with 17 to Evan Longoria’s 21, and led the team in OBA with .359 (tied with Brandon Guyer, but over many more games and plate appearances). Combining those batting achievements with above average defense at a key defensive position, Forsythe made a great leap forward to elite player status.
Forsythe’s 5.1 rWAR ranked him 13th in the American League, just ahead of Jose Bautista, who hit 40 home runs. Forsythe’s defensive WAR of 0.9. ranks him 9th among AL second basemen, and interestingly, 6th among AL first basemen, even though Forsythe only played a handful of games at that position.
Road to Tampa Bay
Forsythe’s career prior to 2015 could be characterized as a disappointment. The Padres drafted him in the first round of the 2008 draft with the 46th pick. He made steady progress through the minors, batting .300 combined in single A and Double A ball in 2009. In 2011 he mashed a slash line of .326/.445/.528 with 8 home runs in 46 games at Tucson, the Padres AAA affiliate. That earned him a call-up to the big club, but he batted only 214 in limited duty.
In 2012 Forsythe batted .273 with 6 home runs, but after he slumped back to .214 in 2013 the Padres shuttled him between San Diego and Tucson. That’s why he was available when the Rays came calling in 2014. The Padres traded Forsythe along with Brad Boxberger, Matt Andriese, Maxx Tisenbaum, and Matt Lolis, for Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn.
At first Forsythe appeared to be the latest in a line of "next Ben Zobrist" candidates. In 2014, he played every infield position, left field and DH. He slumped during the first two months of the year, but ended up hitting .233 with 6 homers.
During the 2015 off season new manager Kevin Cash said that he planned to put players in regular positions whenever possible. Forsythe thrived under the new system, providing a steady presence on the right side of the infield. The numerous injuries the team suffered last year made it difficult for Cash to stick with his plan of consistency, but that made Forsythe’s performance even more important.
The team rewarded Forsythe with a two-year contract extension for $10.5 million, with a club option for $8.5 million in 2018, suggesting that they value him as an elite second baseman. Investing in Forsythe is a gamble with a high upside, assuming he stays healthy and keeps up his skills.
Moving to Lead Off
Rays hitting was so poor in 2015 that Forsythe needed to hit in the middle of the order. Now that the team acquired Corey Dickerson, Steve Pearce, Logan Morrison, and is bringing back Desmond Jennings and Steven Souza, Jr. there’s talk they plan to have Forsythe lead off. He’s led off during several spring training games so far. Although he’s not a speedster, Forsythe can get on base.
So far this spring, Forsythe has performed well at the leadoff role. and Forsythe has responded. As of this writing (3/24), Forsythe leads the Rays in runs scored with 8, in 10 games played (Coincidentally, number two in runs scored is the team’s other Logan – Morrison). Forsythe is batting .379 with a .438 OBA. While spring stats can be suspect, Cash’s strategy to move Forsythe to the top of the lineup appears to be working.
Forsythe turned 29 in January this year. Ball players in general tend to peak around age 27. Perhaps one way Forsythe can imitate Ben Zobrist is by maturing at a later date than normal. Like Zobrist, Forsythe didn’t get a chance to play full time until he turned 28. Certainly the Rays believe Forsythe will have some of his best years into his early thirties. Forsythe doesn’t need to hit 17 homers in 2016 to contribute strongly to the team. He needs to field well at second, and get on base at the same clip he did in 2015. The good news is that Bill James demonstrated years ago that skills such as getting on base tend to stay with players as they age.
Baseball Prospectus projects Forsythe to get about 550 plate appearances in the coming season, score 69 runs (which is the same as 2015), with a slash line of .253/.330/.396 and a true average of .264. I think they’re being conservative. I believe that with Forsythe at the top of the lineup, getting on base, and with the power the Rays acquired coming up behind him, the Rays should score significantly more runs in 2016 than in 2015.