Inside The Rays Spring Training: Outfield

In part two of his spring training preview, Insider Tommy Rancel continues to look at the Tampa Bay Rays’ position players. 

Five was the magic number for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. When the team scored five or more runs, they emerged victorious 90% of the time. When scoring less than five runs, the team had a .318 win percentage. Although they ended the season with 91 victories, the team scored four runs or fewer an equal amount (91) of times including 15 shutouts. The team ended the season in the middle of the American League pack with 4.4 runs scored per game. With this in mind, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman spent the winter searching for that extra half of a run.

Diiscipled in his pursuit, Friedman did not overspend on the open market or in a trade. Perhaps more importantly, he did not sacrifice the team defense in the process of upgrading the offense. Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon did admirable jobs as the team’s first baseman and designated hitter last season; however, new (old) first baseman Carlos Pena and DH Luke Scott provide much more offensive potential, especially in terms of power.

Let us now take a look at Pena, Scott, and the rest of the offense that will look to provide the magical five runs a night at the plate while maintaining a high level of run prevention in the field. After going around the infield in part one, here is a look at the Rays’ outfielders…

Matt Joyce – With Carlos Pena signed, there is no need for Matt Joyce to be anything but the Rays’ primary right fielder in 2012. Named to his first All-Star game in 2011, he finished the season with a .277/.347/.478 slash line, hitting 53 extra-base hits in the process. He crushed right-handed pitching (.295/.361/.505), but continued to struggle against southpaws (.217/.287/.370). With that in mind, he will likely join Jeff Keppinger in an unorthodox platoon where Keppinger takes his spot in the lineup versus left-handed hitters, but plays second base with Ben Zobrist replacing Joyce defensively in right field. Although this prevents Joyce from playing every day, he should still receive about 70% of the playing time. Because of his above-average bat and length of service time (pre-arbitration), he is a prime candidate to sign an extension in the near future.

B.J. Upton – After another offseason of trade rumors, Upton enters what could be his final season with the Rays. Though some may scoff at his $7 million salary, he is still quite the bargain, offering a rate combination of speed and power offensively while covering more ground than almost any center fielder in the game. Despite a .243 batting average, Upton was still on base 33% of the time (11% walk rate) in 2011, and was one of two American League players (Jacoby Ellsbury) with 50 or more extra-base hits and at least 35 steals. Reports say he has filled out his thin frame a little bit and there are already whispers of the annual “breakout season” talks.

Desmond Jennings – Although it took longer than some may have liked, Jennings set the world on fire upon his 2011 debut. In his first 35 games of the season, he hit .351/.439/.634. That said, he cooled off considerably, hitting just .150/.256/.230 line the rest of the way (28 games). Despite coming down to Earth, his overall .356 on-base percentage was a welcomed addition at the top of the lineup – a perch he should hold for the considerable future. He showed more power (10 home runs in 287 plate appearances) than anticipated, but even if some of those home runs become doubles or triples, he is a candidate to approach 60 extra-base hits. He is a dynamic defender in left field, but could easily shift to his natural position – center field – if something were to happen with Upton. And while he lost his rookie eligibility, he will still be one of the top young players in the AL.

Luke Scott – Andrew Friedman finally landed Scott via free agency after several attempts to trade for the left-handed batter over the past few seasons. An outfielder by trade, Scott enters 2012 as the team’s primary designated hitter; although like Johnny Damon, he could see some time at first base or the corner outfield. From 2008-2010, he averaged 25 home runs a season with the Baltimore Orioles, but a torn labrum cost him nearly 100 games in 2011. In addition to the labrum, he also underwent vision correction surgery in the summer. The Rays – along with medical director Dr. James Andrews, who performed Scott’s shoulder surgery – are banking on him regaining his power stroke and joining Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria, and Matt Joyce to give the team formidable power potential in the middle of the lineup. Despite his left-handedness, Scott is somewhat platoon neutral with a career .786 OPS versus left-handed pitchers and a .859 OPS versus right-handers. If healthy enough to handle 600 plate appearances, he could belt 25 homers with an equal amount of doubles.

Sam Fuld – Although he went from legend in April to mere mortal by May, Fuld is nearly the ideal fourth outfielder for the Rays. He can more than adequately play all three outfield positions, is a stolen base waiting to happen as a pinch-runner, and can be used as a left-handed, pinch-hitter in situations where a 90% contact rate is useful. His flaws were exposed as an everyday player; however, he should not have to fill that role in 2012 and should continue to be Brett Gardneresque off the Rays’ bench.

Brandon Guyer – Guyer presents the main competition to Fuld as the team’s fourth outfielder; albeit with a different skill set. Guyer is more of a corner outfielder, but is athletic enough to roam in center field on occasion. A right-handed hitter, he offers balance and more extra-base pop off the bench while still being a threat to advance once aboard. There could be a scenario in which both Fuld and Guyer make the 25-man roster, but that would not an ideal use of available spots. Because Fuld is out of options and Guyer is not, he may start the season in Durham, where the team could groom him for a role as an everyday player in 2013.

Next up in the series: Starting Pitchers