As the hours tick down from a very busy offseason to a Spring Training full of hope and optimism, there are a handful of questions that long to be answered over the course of the next 6-½ weeks. Marc Topkin wrote about three of those questions Thursday — How is the middle infield going to be set up, is Steven Souza ready, and can they make their pitch? — though I’d argue another question should be included: who will back up Rene Rivera behind the plate? In an attempt to answer these questions, I am going to piggyback Topkin’s thoughts and add some analysis of my own.
Let’s dive right in.
1. How is the middle infield going to be set up?
Who will play shortstop? Who will play second? Will the Rays depend on a platoon up the middle in any way, shape, or form? Topkin posed another question, can Nick Franklin play shortstop? All of these questions are reasonable.
Between the Mariners and the Rays, Franklin played in 51 games at second and 41 at short while also seeing limited time at third base, right field, and left field. Seattle aimed to make Franklin more versatile, something that made Franklin so attractive to Tampa Bay in the first place, though the Mariners never gave up on his potential at short.
The 2011 Prospect Handbook found Franklin to have solid actions and range at shortstop. In kind, the 2012 edition found that his range and actions work at shortstop, while the 2013 edition called Franklin an adequate defender at short with average hands and arm. On the whole, Franklin would more than likely be a better fielder at second, though per Baseball America, Franklin would be fine if he did need to stick at the left side of the field.
Asdrubal Cabrera, the veteran middle infielder whose defense has deteriorated at short, may be a better option at second where he has spent the majority of his most recent playing time.
Comparing apples to apples, Franklin posted a -1 FSR* (runs above average) at short in 93.2 innings of work, while Cabrera fell from a +5 FSR in 2009 to an overall -23 in five short years. Jeff Sulivan (FanGraphs) opined that Franklin could be anywhere from a -5 to -10 shortstop, which is still better than Cabrera when you look at his most recent FSR ratings on the left side (-17 in 2013, -11 in 2014). Boding well for Asdrubal, he has a combined +3 FSR at second base extending over 1773.2 total innings.
Cabrera projects to be a key part of the everyday lineup, while the Rays would like to have Franklin’s left handed power in the lineup — especially against right-handed pitching. It seems reasonable for Franklin to spend the majority of his time at short (with Logan Forsythe as a platoon option and Tim Beckham as bench depth) and Cabrera at second.
2. Is Steven Souza ready?
Yes. It goes without saying, the Rays will be counting heavily upon the bat and defense of Steven Souza, who posted a meaty .350 BA with 18 homers and 75 RBI in Triple-A last season, with a .432 OBP and a .590 SLG (1.022 OPS).
With Souza playing every day in right field, Kevin Kiermaier would shift to center — where he is more than capable to cover the real estate — and Desmond Jennings would move to left where he would platoon with Brandon Guyer (depending upon the handedness of the pitcher).
3. Can they make their pitch?
The front four pitchers in the starting rotation are all but locked down, with Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi filling out the ranks. However, who assumes the fifth starter spot while Matt Moore continues to mend is uncertain.
The top two candidates are Nathan Karns, who made his debut last season, and Alex Colome, who is out of options and is likely to be on the team anyway. Topkin thinks Matt Andriese, Enny Romero and Burch Smith also will get looks as well.
With the loss of long-reliever Cesar Ramos, it would make sense for Colome to start the season in the bullpen, assuming that position. There is another open position in the ‘pen, with closer Jake McGee out until late April as he recovers from arthroscopic elbow surgery. As I wrote previously, high leverage reliever Kevin Jepsen is an apt replacement for McGee, though I’d imagine Brad Boxberger may also get a look.
4. Who will back up Rene Rivera behind the plate?
Curt Casali seems to be the next backup catcher based on his experience last season with the Rays, though recent acquisition (and local product) Bobby Wilson and minor league prospect Justin O’Conner could give Casali a run for the money.
At the moment, Topkin expects the Opening Day roster to look like this:
Pitchers (12): Chris Archer, Grant Balfour, x-Ronald Belisario, Jeff Beliveau, Brad Boxberger, Alex Cobb, Alex Colome, Ernesto Frieri, Kevin Jepsen, Jake Odorizzi, C.J. Riefenhauser, Drew Smyly
Catchers (2): Rene Rivera, x-Bobby Wilson
Infielders (6): Tim Beckham, Asdrubal Cabrera, Logan Forsythe, Nick Franklin, James Loney, Evan Longoria
Outfielders/DH (5): Brandon Guyer, John Jaso, Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza
DL (2): LHP Jake McGee, LHP Matt Moore
Personally I think Kirby Yates will be plugged into the bullpen instead of Ronald Belisario, though the rest of his predictions are spot on. Ask me again in 6-1/2 weeks.
*FSR measures a player’s total defensive ability in runs above or below average.
For what it’s worth, in a question and answer piece for the Tampa Bay Times Sunday, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg was quoted as saying, “I don’t see myself personally attending another council meeting — or my staff,” after the failed December vote on the memorandum of understanding between the City of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Rays. Sternberg, who again reiterated that the Rays would not negotiate with the City Council, apparently took exception to certain council member’s opinions that Brian Auld (Rays VP of Business Operations) came off as arrogant during that doomed council meeting.
While Sternberg may have a point, saying, “It was a mistake to have our people at the last council meeting. This was a deal we struck with the mayor. It’s the city’s issue, not my issue,” I’m going to have to disagree. Why? The Rays are Sternberg’s investment, therefore anything involving his investment is his issue.
Stu placed Brian Auld in the line of fire in the first place. The St. Petersburg City Council had every right to ask questions; Stu even acknowledged as much in his Q & A with the Times. And yes, Auld — much like Sternberg in this instance — WAS arrogant and glib. Sternberg would have known as much had he attended the meeting in December.
Stu should have been there to help sell the plan to the city council, not Auld. Again, it is his team, not his employee’s. Instead Sternberg chose to throw Auld to the wolves; to a group of individuals who may or may not share an acrimonious relationship with the organization. Perhaps Stu should spend more time tending to his investment/team in this market, as opposed from afar in NYC… Perhaps he’d have a better feel for the state of negotiations from a first hand point of view.