Insider: Rays’ Upton To Start Season on DL

Those who thought B.J. Upton would not be the Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder on opening day were correct. Oh, Upton is still a member of the organization; however, not an active one. With lingering soreness in his back stemming from a collision with fellow outfielder Desmond Jennings, Upton will start the 2012 season on the disabled list. The injury is not considered to be serious, but the time missed by Upton over the past two weeks was deemed too much to have him fully prepared for the season.

Upton’s offensive production will not be easily replaced, but his spot in center field may be. Jennings – the man he collided with – is the most likely replacement, considering center field is his natural position and the spot he most frequently played in the minor leagues. While that covers Upton in center, it creates a void in left field.

Replacing Jennings in left field is not as simple. The most logical replacement would be Sam Fuld, but Fuld’s 2012 season is in jeopardy as he is considering surgery on his injured right wrist. The other logical option would be Brandon Guyer; however, he has not been recalled from minor league camp.

Guyer, 26, spent most of 2011 – his first with Tampa Bay – playing in Triple-A. In 107 games for the Durham Bulls, he hit .312/.384/.521 with 48 extra-base hits. This followed his 2010 Double-A campaign where he hit .344/.398/.588. He is a good defender in the corners and could play adequate center field if needed. As far as the Rays’ options go, he would be the bat most capable to fill in for Upton on offense with good contact skills, decent speed, and extra-base pop from the right side.

Beyond Guyer, the list is not so clear. With Fuld and Upton headed for the DL, Elliot Johnson will almost certainly make the opening day roster. Johnson, an infielder by trade, has played the outfield in the past and is logging considerable innings in center field in Upton’s absence. While Johnson is probably capable enough on the defensive side of things, his offense is below replacement level. Almost 1/3 of his 2011 plate appearance ended in a strike out and 10 of his 31 hits did not leave the infield. In summation, Johnson replacing Upton would be a suboptimal situation. Another scenario could see the Rays could go unconventional – shocker – and move one of their projected starters along the infield (Sean Rodriguez or Ben Zobrist) to the outfield in Upton’s absence and have Jeff Keppinger start in his space.

There are a lot of scenarios in play -including help from outside the organization – however, B.J. Upton in center field on opening day is not one of them.