Arguably the biggest change in the MLB rules going into this next season is active rosters will now contain 26 players, rather than 25. There are two obvious ways to exploit a rule like this:
- Carry a bigger bullpen full of either long men or specialists, and shift more innings from your starting rotation to your bullpen.
- Carry a bigger bench, and platoon and pinch hit more players to get the matchups you want.
But the league has been all over option one, preemptively instituting a 13 pitcher limit on the active roster (14 in September), and a three-batter minimum for pitchers unless they’re finishing an inning, which will hurt the effectiveness of specialists.
So that leaves option two: platoon.
The Rays got that ball rolling when they traded their probably-best overall everyday position player, Tommy Pham, to San Diego. They will attempt to replace his production with that of several players in smaller roles.
Let’s take a look at how that’s likely to work out.
Guts and Caveats
For this analysis I’m using a tool Jason Hanselman and I made a long time ago that implements the handedness splits research done by Bojan Koprivica with projections of one’s choice.
Right now my choice is Steamer, because they’re readily available on FanGraphs; except they don’t have anything for Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, so for that I’m reverse engineering some fantasy projections from ZiPS to get a wOBA. Sorry if it’s not exactly what you have, Dan, but I think it’s close. (On the topic of Tsutsugo, I assigned him an average split, but I actually expect it to be a bit smaller than normal for a lefty.)
Also, I’ll be including some projections for players not on the Rays, which means that Steamer is projecting them into parks other than Tropicana (this matters for someone like Avisail Garcia being projected into Milwaukee). So be aware, and napkin math to your heart’s extent.
The one stat I’m looking at throughout this piece is wOBA, which is an overall measure of offensive value. Think of it as sitting on an OBP scale. Bigger is better. Last year’s average wOBA was .320.
The Fun Part: vs RHP
Let’s start with a look at the projected numbers vs right-handed pitching, both for the current Rays, and for some guys who have been on the Rays roster recently, or who could have been there had the offseason gone differently (non-Rays in yellow, for comparison).
Some things that jump out:
- It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from Yoshi, but there’s a good chance that he mashes, especially against righties.
- Tommy Pham is a pretty good player, isn’t he?
- But depending on what happens with Pham’s and Tsutsugo’s defense in 2020, and with how and where Tsutsugo and Meadows play (best guess is that one will be at DH and one at LF), it’s totally possible that the Rays have upgraded their left field position against RHP overall.
- I thought it was unlikely the Rays were going to sign Marcel Ozuna, but then he turned around and landed a one-year QO-avoiding $18 mil deal with the Braves. That’s . . . something that the Rays maybe could and should have done.
- It’s hard to see Nate Lowe making this team on Opening Day based on the players already in house, but if and when he’s up he’ll get playing time.
- Yasiel Puig is looking like a true neutral splits guy. That’s interesting. I didn’t know.
Let’s build a starting lineup against right-handed pitching (* for LHH):
C: Michael Perez*; .291
1B: Ji-Man Choi*; .341
2B: Brandon Lowe*; .332
SS: Willy Adames; .314
3B: Yandy Diaz; .324
LF: Austin Meadows*; .354
CF: Kevin Kiermaier*; .308
RF: Randy Arozarena; .309
DH: Yoshi Tsutsugo*; .355
Average wOBA projection vs. RHP: .325
That’s a pretty good lineup. The one position that you don’t love is right-field, where it’s either Arozarena or Renfroe, who are similar right-handed hitters. Probably whoever plays the better defense gets the nod.
However, if there comes a time when Nate Lowe is up in the bigs, you might see him in DH, Tsutsugo in LF, and Meadows in RF, for a lineup that will really mash.
The Less Fun Part: vs. LHP
Flipping the hands around, these are the projections against left-handed pitching.
- So this is where the road not taken jumps out at you. It’d be nice to have a Pham. Or an Ozuna. Heck, having Avi around was pretty good. And d’Arnaud. Too bad they’re both gone. Puig’s still on the market, and he would help.
- Jose Martinez will be an important player this year if the Rays are to contend. He’s not just a throw-in in the Arozarena deal.
- The Rays have two young right fielders who could outperform this projection in Renfroe and Arozarena. One or both of them needs to step up.
Here’s the best projected offensive lineup I can build against left-handed pitching.
C: Mike Zunino; .293
1B: Jose Martinez; .348
2B: Daniel Robertson; .316
SS: Willy Adames; .317
3B: Yandy Diaz; .348
LF: Randy Arozarena; .328
CF: Kevin Kiermaier*; .280
RF: Hunter Renfroe; .334
DH: Austin Meadows*; .323
Average wOBA projection vs. LHP: .321
This is a less good lineup than the first, because .321 < .325 (#analysis), but it’s not as far as I thought it was going to be, going in.
The pickings get a lot slimmer, though, if you don’t have both Arozarena and Renfroe on the team at the same time to start the season. In that case you’re probably playing Brandon Lowe and his .296 projection, or Choi and his .301 projection.
Are the Rays done making moves?
Between the two lineups I’ve named 13 players, with Adames, Diaz, Kiermaier, and Arozarena (or Renfroe, take your pick) playing every day, and every other player being part of a “starting” platoon.
That’s the entire bench. There’s no room left.
But think for a second that you’re trying to improve this team. Lets check the old twitter machine to see who might be available...
Not a starter right now, but if he’s available, he’s as strong a RHH platoon OF as you can get with solid defense — instead of signing a Pillar, might be better long term bet for a team to roll the dice on the 25 year old https://t.co/Sg3yIXibKQ— Danny Russell (@d_russ) January 29, 2020
The clearest way to do it is to go out and trade for Mookie Betts, who I see is available. He’d fit. But the other name in this trade rumor from Buster Olney is interesting, too.
Margot is projected a few points behind Arozarena, but — importantly — is a true center fielder, who’s graded above average defensively by UZR and DRS each of the three years he’s been in the league, and per reports might be better than those metrics give him credit.
If the Padres were to acquire Betts without sending Margot to Boston, he’d be a surplus player in the San Diego outfield.
And while his defense makes him playable no matter what he’s hitting, Kevin Kiermaier’s career numbers and projection against left-handed pitching aren’t pretty. But where would another outfielder play?
Let’s send Arozarena to Triple-A in our thought experiment, and bring in Margot. That replaces Kiermaier’s .280 projection with a Margot’s .323 projection, and Arozarena’s .328 with Tsutsugo’s .321.
Those moves eliminate one of the two presumptive “holes” in the lineup (the other being catcher), and brings the overall average wOBA projection to .325 — the same as the number we got to against righties.
If the Rays were willing to go with a 12-man pitching staff like the days of yore (re: 2019) then you could bring the likes of Arozarena back into the fold as well and effectively platoon all three outfield spots against lefties. With the Durham Shuttle flying and for difficult matchups mid-year, this is a conceivable future!
Alternatively, you could also see the Rays keep Arozarena at the big league level, and move utility defenders like Daniel Robertson or (more likely) Joey Wendle up and down instead. Any way you slice it, there’s room for another RHH on this roster, depending on where you’d like to utilize the best platoons.
Over the past few years, the Rays have been a team that’s cultivated a deep 40-man roster of major league caliber players, and has been willing to use them all, both in terms of cycling through pitchers, and in playing the full bench to get the best matchups.
And with the change in roster rules, the Rays appear to have bought into that idea even more, seeking to replace Tommy Pham’s everyday production with a collection of potentially potent but speculative platoon bats.
There may be an opportunity to carry the strategy even further if the Rays are willing to platoon platinum-glove winner Kevin Kiermaier, who, when healthy, has been one of their few everyday stars over the past six years. It would be bold, and probably unpopular to sit KK against lefties. It also might be a winning play.
Or should the Rays go in the other direction, and make a serious offer to a player who can hold down his position against pitchers of both handedness? Like, say, a right-fielder with a rocket arm, with a statistically significant reverse career split, and a history of above average production?
Yasiel Puig is still on the market, and his projection would be a step up from either of the presumptive right-fielders, per the analysis we’ve performed here. More on that soon . . . In the meantime, don’t expect the Rays to be done just yet.