Over the last few weeks the Tampa Bay Rays have made a handful of roster moves to either thin the herd en route to the 25-man Opening Day roster, or to free up space for players like Carlos Gomez. In doing so, a pair of players vying for a spot up the middle — Willy Adames and Ryan Schimpf — were optioned or traded away (respectively) leaving three players to battle it out for a pair of spots on the infield: Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle and Micah Johnson.
The question begs: With Brad Miller slated to platoon first base with C.J. Cron, who might Kevin Cash lean on at second base, or as overall infield bench depth?
Acquired from the Oakland A’s in the Ben Zobrist trade, Robertson made his big league debut under the Big Top last season. The infielder appeared in 75 games for the Rays, dividing his time at second base, shortstop and third base.
Robertson made a name for himself in the field, making several impressive snags on the right side of the infield, and playing adequately at short and third.
Robertson’s bat, however, left a lot to be desired, as he slashed a tepid .206 BA/.308 OBP/.326 SLG/.634 OPS line with 22 runs, 19 RBI, five home runs, and a 76 wRC+ over 254 plate appearances.
Steamer projects Robertson to post a .240 BA/.322 OBP/.360 SLG/.682 OPS/.300 wOBA with five homers across 67 games in 2018, although he probably could hit 10-12 bombs if he played full-time.
Because Christian Arroyo was optioned to Triple-A, there will be a need for someone, like Robertson, that can slot in all over the infield. And if he can reduce his strikeout rate from 28.7% in 2017 to something under his 23.1% Steamer projection, it will boost his playing moving forward. If not, he may factor into a utility role — Robertson has seen more outfield work this spring.
Wendle, 26, is another infielder acquired from Oakland. He isn’t the flashiest of players, although he makes the routine plays. He hasn’t shown the type of range that would play well at shortstop, making second base his best defensive option. Wendle’s arm is strong enough to play both second and third though.
Rays VP and General Manager Erik Neander called Wendle a grinder type player, with a high baseball IQ.
Part of what has drawn us to him is, over time, even prior to the DFA period, a really high quality defender. This is a guy whose as about as reliable as they come and has really worked to put him in a position where his defense is today. Neander said. It was something that earlier in his career, he wasn’t as well regarded as a defender, this is a guy when balls are hit in the vicinity of him somehow some way he’s finding a way to get to them more often than most and he’s completing plays at a really high rate.
The southpaw hitting infielder managed a .266 BA/.305 OBP/.339 SLG/.644 OPS over 118 plate appearances in 36 games (27 starts), with two doubles, two home runs and 16 RBI. Steamer has pegged Wendle for a .240 BA/.279 OBP/.359 SLG/.638 OPS/.274 wOBA line over 62 games and 256 plate appearances, with a 69 wRC+.
It should be noted: while most of his time has been spent at second base, the Rays could explore other positions on the diamond.
He’s been in Triple-A with Oakland the last three years. Neander said. So, I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to do anything and everything to give himself the best position to be in the big leagues with us.
Johnson entered camp as a non-roster invite who had bounced around four teams (Braves, Reds, Giants and Rays) all since October. Suffice it to say, all that movement speaks to the fact that Johnson has struggled to make an impression on organization he has been a part of.
Over the last few seasons Johnson has increased his versatility in the field and has played 538 games (at all levels) at either second base, or in the outfield at all three positions. His best fit, however, is at second base due to experience — over his career, Johnson has played at second base in 461 games.
True Blue LA wrote about Johnson, and his defensive versatility:
Built more like an NFL press cover corner, Johnson has a filled out 6’0 frame and the quick twitchiness to develop an elite first-step quickness on either the basepaths or in the field. His athleticism allows him to flash the spectacular in the field, but his overall defensive ability is hampered by stiff infield actions and hands. Johnson will likely be no better than average at second base and should he spend 2016 in Triple-A, would be best served getting a few innings in center field as a future defensive fall back.
Since he was drafted in 2012, Johnson has performed to a lowly .224 BA/.291 OBP/.259 SLG/.560 OPS/.252 wOBA line over just 131 big league plate appearances.
ZIPS projects a .222 BA/.281 OBP/.322 SLG/.603 OPS/.265 wOBA over 105 plate appearances in 2018, while Steamer predicts one major league at bat.
One attribute Johnson has in spades is speed to burn. In his first professional season, he led all the minor leagues with 84 steals. Moreover, the INF/OF has accrued 190 MiLB stolen bases. His speed an range make him an asset for the Rays, who could slot Johnson in as a defensive replacement in the outfield.
With 15 days left until Opening Day, and a myriad of roster moves that still need to be made prior to Chris Archer’s first pitch, the time to make a decision is running short. Robertson, and to a lesser extent Wendle, are known quantities to big league evaluators, while Johnson, frankly, is not. If infield precision, instincts, and a focus on defensive ability are your cups of tea, I cannot help but feel that the tandem of Robertson and Wendle will break camp with the big league squad at the end of Spring Training.