Tampa Bay’s Offensive Depth Is Put to the Test

tampa bays offensive depth is put to the test
© Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

You can call the Rays unlucky, if you’d like. After amassing the second-most WAR from position players in all of baseball last year, 2022 has been a huge step back. They’re 18th in the league, with an aggregate wRC+ below 100, and injuries have taken a huge toll on the lineup they planned to run out at the start of the year.

Wander Franco, their wunderkind shortstop, hasn’t played since May 30. Brandon Lowe, perhaps the best hitter on the team, has been out two weeks longer than Franco. Manuel Margot had been picking up some of the offensive slack, but now he’s out with a knee injury that may cause him to miss significant time, and fellow outfielder Kevin Kiermaier hit the IL the same day. Mike Zunino was ineffective and is now hurt. Josh Lowe and Taylor Walls, two of the team’s top reinforcements coming into the year, have a combined 51 wRC+.

When you lay out the problem in those terms, it’s amazing that the Rays are very much in the playoff hunt, only a half game out of the last Wild Card spot. But that’s just Tampa Bay for you. If you had me pick a team that could best withstand the loss of its best hitters, the Rays would have been an easy choice. Their organizational philosophy prioritizes depth and flexibility, and that’ll be put to the test yet again in the coming weeks.

What do I mean? Just to take one cherry-picked example, their infield depth pieces are going full Aaron Judge on the Yankees:

But even without Isaac Paredes’ outburst yesterday, the Rays have built an enviable group of reinforcements. Missing your starting shortstop and second baseman? Walls hasn’t hit at all this year, but he has an excellent defensive reputation, and has been the team’s primary shortstop since Franco’s injury. That bumped him out of his rotating second base/third base role, but that’s no problem: Yandy Díaz, perhaps the team’s best hitter this year, can play third base full-time. Vidal Bruján, the team’s top infield prospect, stepped into Walls’ role of everyday starter and backup shortstop. Paredes can play every infield position other than short. Jonathan Aranda, freshly called up after crushing Triple-A, can as well.

In fact, the Rays are the best team in the league at this very specific thing they’re being tested on. Lowe and Franco were the team’s top two hitters per our preseason Depth Charts projections, with a combined projected wOBA of .351. Their replacements – for my purposes, an equal mix of Paredes, Aranda, and Bruján – had a combined projected wOBA of .310. That 41-point drop sounds huge, and it is. If Franco and Lowe missed the full season, that would come out to nearly 50 runs worth of lost offense, not to mention any defensive shortcomings.

But every other team in baseball would suffer more if a similar fate befell them. I did a quick check of this: I took preseason projections for the top two hitters on each team and compared them to my best guess at who their replacements would be. The Rays had the smallest drop-off, and the teams closest to them mostly got there by having a very low bar to clear; the Cubs and Orioles, for example, each did quite well by this method.

Of course, games aren’t played by projections, and Tampa Bay’s hitters will have to rise to the occasion to keep the team in the chase while the starters recuperate. Even if the composite Paredes/Aranda/Bruján solution works in the infield – and that’s far from a given, as Bruján is hitting .162/.208/.234 in 120 plate appearances and Aranda hasn’t yet debuted – there’s also the matter of replacing two of the team’s three starting outfielders.

One of those replacements is straightforward, if slightly worrisome. Kiermaier is a sterling center fielder with a light bat; Brett Phillips is that as well, though likely a worse defender and hitter than the still-excellent Kiermaier. Phillips has posted spectacular defensive numbers in right field this year, and he looks at home in center. He’s also hitting .168/.233/.285, good for a 54 wRC+. You don’t have to hit much to be a valuable player if you can play excellent outfield defense, but you need to hit more than that.

Replacing Margot might be easier, at least in the short run. He was off to the best start of his career, but Lowe is a tailor-made replacement for now. The Rays freed up a spot for Lowe by trading Austin Meadows for Paredes before the season started, but he scuffled out of the gate and more or less had his job taken by Margot. That sent Lowe back to Triple-A, where he’s been both good and unsustainably hot, to the tune of a 144 wRC+ and .422 BABIP. The team called him up two days ago, and he’s started both games since his return. He’ll get every chance to succeed this time around, because the team needs offense to come from somewhere.

Randy Arozarena, the other starting outfielder, has been up and down this season; he’s currently down, with a wRC+ near 0 over the past seven games, but was white-hot earlier in June. That roller coaster nets out to roughly average offensive production. Harold Ramirez might be a better outfield option, but he’s starting at DH most days, and is the worst defender of the group. For the most part, Tampa Bay just needs Lowe to stick this time.

The team’s depth is admirable. Walls, Lowe, and Bruján are (or were before graduating) top 100 prospects. Aranda and Paredes have gaudy minor league track records. Ramirez and Phillips were each acquired in trade for their Rays-y qualities. This is the exact reason the Rays build for depth. It’s a good thing, too: if these replacements don’t hit, the Rays won’t make the playoffs.

That sounds reductive, but it’s the truth. Every day for the next week or so, roughly half of the Tampa Bay lineup will be made up of these injury replacements. And I do mean these injury replacements – the Rays have exactly one position player in their minor league system on the 40-man roster after the latest wave of promotions.

The replacements don’t have to hold out forever. Franco might return as soon as this weekend, Lowe is resuming baseball activities, and Kiermaier might only miss 10 days with his hip injury. But even when those players return, competition for playing time will remain fierce. Four Rays regulars – Walls, Phillips, Bruján, and Zunino – have been more than 40% below average at the plate this year. New offense needs to come from somewhere – and given the state of the roster, it probably needs to come from these very names or via trade.

Every year, analysts look at Tampa Bay’s team and wonder how they’ll convert depth to wins. Every year, the Rays manage to spin something into more than the sum of its parts – the bullpen has just the right pieces, maybe, or perhaps an unexpected call-up keys the offense. This year, they’re testing their depth like never before. Can the Rays’ top minor leaguers anchor a playoff run? We’re about to find out.

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