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2019 Tampa Bay Rays preview: Joey Wendle is (still) good

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The unheralded “stopgap” grabbed second base by the throat and Tampa Bay fans by the heartstrings.

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Joey Wendle was supposed to be a stopgap until the “real” prospects arrived. A Rookie of the Year-worthy season later, and he is The Man in the middle of an impressive young infield. And with Willy Adames to his right, Yandy Diaz to his left, and Daniel Robertson pushing from behind, the lefty-hitting second baseman who took Tampa Bay by storm in 2018 is going to have to keep producing if he and the team hope to build on last year’s successes. Something manager Kevin Cash doesn’t doubt Wendle is capable of.

During the March 10th spring training game against the Red Sox, NESN broadcaster Jarrod Saltalamacchia quoted Cash as saying Wendle could hit 30 homers this year, an idea that Twitter responded to with typical derision. Two pitches later, Wendle emphasized the point by hitting his second bomb of the spring.

Serendipity aside, going from seven home runs to 30 is ridiculous, right?

Right???

Maybe. But as H.L. Mencken definitely would have said if he were a Rays fan and not dead, “Lots of people have gone broke underestimating the success of Joey Wendle.” [Editor’s note: Mencken definitely did not say this.]

The projection systems are less bullish on our gritty heartthrob, with Steamer pegging him at a .255/.303/.374 slash line, a .293 wOBA and an 86 wRC+, and ZIPS predicting a similar .256/.302/.389 slash line to go with a .298 wOBA and an 89 wRC+. Both see almost all of his value coming from his glove. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that the Rays — and Oakland before them — had visions of Mark Ellis 2.0.

While the glove did play in ‘18 — including capably at short and third, and gigantically in left before he took over second full-time following the Daniel Robertson injury — and should continue to play well in ‘19, the changes in Wendle’s approach at the plate over the course of the season are what is most intriguing. These are what has us wondering if Joey Wendle is “for real” or if 2018 was a 3.7 fWAR mirage.

Danny Russell did a solid deep dive into the “Does Joey belong?” question back at the end of August. Not much changed over the last month, except his second half leveled off from “getting toasty” to “sustained hotness.”

via Fangraphs

One point of interest was Wendle’s K% taking a nosedive during the second half, while his walk percentage stayed mostly the same. This is curious in that his swing percentages both inside and outside the zone — while they bounce around as these things do — hover around league average all season. Though we do see a precipitous drop in swings outside the zone at the end of the season. It will interesting to see if that is noise, or it is part of the adjustment. Because there does seem to be an adjustment.

It seems that Joey is just making more sustained contact, period. And if that is a for real adjustment, it bodes well for his someone of his profile.

Of course, if he actually hits 30 home runs, then profile-schmofile, Joey Wendle is an All-Star and Mark Ellis is just Joey Wendle zero-point-five.