With the accusations against Wander Franco likely to lead to legal action against him, it’s clear the Rays will need to go to “Plan B” at shortstop for the 2024 season.
The Rays are fortunate to have several in-house options at their All-Star’s vacant position, and utilized many of those names in 2023 after Franco was placed on leave. Those are defensive wonder Taylor Walls, top prospect Junior Caminero, and “next man up” Osleivis Basabe.
Let’s go through each of the options.
Walls played 32 games at shortstop in 2023, and has appeared at the position in 173 games (148 starts) over his three-year career thus far, totaling 419 assists and 23 DRS. Only one player in all of baseball has a higher DRS from 2021-2023 at the shortstop position, and that’s Miguel Rojas, who has 32 DRS over more than twice as many games (385 appearances, 364 starts). Across all infield positions, Walls has tallied 38 DRS since 2021, which ranks him among the highest achievers in baseball by that metric, even though he’s played in a part-time role.
The Rays front office would be thrilled to have such a strong defensive performance at the most important position on the field, so it shouldn’t be any surprise if Walls is Kevin Cash’s top choice to man shortstop, as the Rays manager has consistently chosen defense over any offensive concerns.
Unfortunately, Walls was hindered last season by a hip injury that required surgery. Although Cash told reporters at the Winter Meetings he thought Walls was on track for Opening Day, if he’s slowed in recovery the Rays will need to consider other options (Plan C?) for the start of the season.
One obvious choice for any promotion from the minors might be Junior Caminero, who Baseball America named the Rays top prospect, projecting maxed out 80-grade power. Even though his 7-game cup of coffee last year included two appearances at shortstop, he’s not expected to stick at the position:
Caminero is an average at defender at third base with a chance to eventually be above-average. He moves well side-to-side but is still learning when to stay back and when to charge balls. His plus arm helps a lot and allows him to be fringy but playable at shortstop. Caminero moves really well for his size. He’ll flash above-average to plus run times and could probably handle right field if the Rays desired.
When considering the Rays future overall, with former first round pick SS Carson Williams reaching Double-A this year, it may be in the best interest for all to keep Junior on his development path at third base. Junior is the next wave of talent, but there’s an emphasis on next wave. He’s not a finished product, and consistent playing time and coaching should help him build the confidence he needs to know he’ll succeed once the Rays need him for good, particularly on defense.
La Pantera Negra was a surprise solution for the Rays at shortstop in 2023, although he appeared all over the field (SS:20, 3B:5, 2B:4, RF:2, LF:1), and may have the same opportunity to start 2024 even if Walls is not sidelined to start the year, given the Rays desire to have utility players on the bench.
But if Walls is slowed in reaching Opening Day, it’s reasonable to think the Rays might just bridge the gap by handing the role to the next man up. And while other players on the major league roster like Curtis Mead or Isaac Paredes might fit the role of an emergency shortstop on occasion, Basabe has the chops to hold down the position until Walls returns.
Basabe wasn’t blowing anyone away with the bat across his 31 games played, but his aggressive approach and above average contact ability should serve him well enough for the role the Rays have for him. Other than the lack of pop, he’s a perfectly acceptable major leaguer, and a decent solution at shortstop for Opening Day.
What about outside the organization?
There’s always a possibility that a team could come calling with an interesting trade request, since the Rays certainly have a few too many part time players that may fit other teams better at this juncture (i.e. DH Harold Ramirez, fifth outfielder Luke Raley, or blocked prospects Jonathan Aranda or Curtis Mead). If the return could include a stop-gap shortstop, it’s worth considering.
There also may be a free agent infielder’s price that could be just right for the Rays and their present need, like when the Rays signed Asdrubal Cabrera at this time of the off-season in 2015 for $7.5 million. If a player like Amed Rosario could be picked up at that price, the Rays should at least consider that sort of addition. Yu Chang or Nick Ahmed on an incentive-laden minor league deal may also be a palatable opportunity for player and club. It’s conceivable that any of these free agents could win over the pitching staff with a strong performance during Spring Training and find themselves the new Rays everyday shortstop in 2024.
Ultimately, though, I’d expect the Rays to save their money and let Walls/Basabe get their chance to prove their mettle as the team awaits the arrival of Carson Williams sometime in the next two seasons.
UPDATE — January 6
Following the publishing of this article, the Rays acquired INF José Caballero from the Mariners for OF Luke Raley, making Caballero the immediate favorite to win the SS position out of Spring Training over prospect Osleivis Basabe.