Is Wil Myers the Cure for the Anemic Rays Offense?

Our thoughts are with all those affected by the bombings at the Boston Marathon. There was a baseball game played at Fenway Park a little earlier in the day, so we’ll do our best to provide some analysis.

Trailing by a run entering the ninth inning of Monday’s game, the Tampa Bay Rays started to rally. Leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings led off with a clean single. Rather than foolishly try to bunt him over, Ben Zobrist got to swing away. After Jennings stole second, Zobrist lashed a single to left, scoring Jennings and tying the game. An ill-advised throw allowed Zobrist to advance to second, bringing the 3-4-5 hitters to the plate with a chance to take the lead. When Evan Longoria worked the count full, it looked like good things were about to happen.

But this is the Tampa Bay Rays’ offense, the Hindenburg of the American League so far this season. Andrew Bailey threw a pitch out of the zone, Longoria failed to check his swing, and he struck out. Then Matt Joyce, who has looked lost at the plate since Opening Day, struck out looking. Finally Ryan Roberts, who has no business batting in any high-leverage situation against a right-handed pitcher, popped out meekly to second. Three Boston batters later, the Red Sox walked off with the win.

There was a silver lining in all this. In losing their third straight game to Boston, the Rays actually scored two runs. Considering their recent play, that qualifies as a full-on offensive outburst.

The Rays’ 3-2 loss Monday gave the team three total runs for the three games at Fenway. Tampa Bay has now scored 35 runs in 12 games, an average of less than three a game and the lowest total in the majors, save for the hapless Marlins. Zobrist’s ninth-inning single was the Rays’ first hit with a runner in scoring position in 25 at-bats; the three outs that followed left the team 1 for its last 28 with RISP. The end result is a Rays team that’s 4-8, tying the worst start in franchise history.

Are the Rays truly this terrible? And what can they do to fix their dormant offense anyway?

To start, we need to consider how the Rays approached last offseason. For four years, they had gained a (deserved) reputation as the best defensive team in baseball. Then in 2012, a combination of Evan Longoria’s hamstring injury and poor performances from several players took a bite out of the team’s defense; the Rays still finished sixth in team Ultimate Zone Rating last year, but they weren’t nearly the defensive powerhouse that they’d been from 2008 through 2011. A full return to health for Longoria figured to help. But the Rays made a pair of moves to further stoke a defensive turnaround.

First, they traded B-level prospect Derek Dietrich to Miami for Yunel Escobar, picking up a player deemed expendable by the Marlins after coming over in the blockbuster deal with Toronto but also an above-average defensive shortstop, something the Rays sorely needed. Two days later, they signed former Dodger James Loney to a modest one-year, $2 million contract, picking up one of the best glovemen in the game at first base. Already the best run-prevention team in the majors last year thanks to a loaded starting rotation and lights-out relief corps, the Rays hoped acquiring Escobar and Loney would fortify their defense, thereby offsetting the loss of James Shields and the inevitable bullpen regression likely to ensue after an off-the-charts effort in 2012.

Neither player figured to help the offense much, though. Escobar was actually a borderline star back in his heyday with the Braves. In his first three big league seasons spanning 2007 through 2009, he hit .326/.385/.451, .288/.366/.401, and .299/.377/.436, the kind of numbers that, combined with Escobar’s solid defense, made him one of the best all-around shortstops in the game. Then the bottom dropped out: Escobar hit just .238/.334/.284 in 75 games for the Braves in 2010, those numbers and perceived attitude problems earning him a trade to Toronto. Escobar hit a little better in the second half of that season, then returned to form in 2011, hitting a robust .290/.369/.413 and earning a multiyear deal from the Jays. Then just as quickly, he turned into a pariah again, hitting just .253/.300/.344 and sparking a scandal by wearing eye black that displayed a gay slur in Spanish. Acquiring Escobar was a classic buy-low move by a Rays team that always seems to target players after a down year, rather than at the height of their value. But even if he could smooth out his off-field reputation, it was hard to say how he’d hit.

Meanwhile, Loney offered no such mystery. The 28-year-old lefty swinger hit a putrid .249/.293/.336 last year, his punchless hitting being largely responsible for the Dodgers pulling off one of the wildest trades baseball had seen in decades. Though his career numbers weren’t quite that bad, Loney routinely ranked among the weakest-hitting first basemen in the league, averaging a little under 12 homers a year from 2007 to 2012. The Rays’ best hope was that Loney’s defense, combined with his half-decent ability to hit right-handed pitching (.293/.350/.439, compared to just .248/.302/.355 vs. lefties), would make him a useful player, if not necessarily a boon to the team’s iffy lineup.

Both Escobar and Loney have been excellent defensively to start this season, Escobar providing good range and reliable hands at short, and Loney turning into a scoops machine, including four balls dug out of the dirt in the first five innings on Opening Day alone. But both have also been offensive nightmares. Loney’s 0-for-3 Monday dropped his season line to .172/.250/.241, while Escobar’s 0-for-3 left him at .098/.178/.146 for the year. Joyce, who’s now batting cleanup against right-handers, has neutered multiple rallies with his own .147/.194/.235 numbers. And Sam Fuld, an April sensation two years ago when pressed into everyday action, hasn’t hit a lick so far this year, batting just .087/.125/.087 while earning extra playing time with would-be starting DH Luke Scott on the disabled list.

Those anemic performances have made the Rays painful to watch for most of these first two weeks. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t showing any signs of panic. After a 6-1 loss to Texas on April 9, Maddon, the only major league manager with anything approaching an active Twitter account, tweeted this: “Too early to be concerned about the offense. Biggest thing is to build confidence. Frustrating tonite. They’re winning the battle of inches.” After Saturday’s 2-1 extra-inning loss in Boston: “We’re just missing right now. We have to keep pounding on the door until it opens. The tale of today was 0-11 with runners in scoring pos.” Following Sunday’s 5-0 whitewash at Fenway, Maddon offered this: “When your guys aren’t hitting u have to stay with them because it will come around. We’ve been here be4. This isn’t the road less traveled.”

Even if Maddon’s staying calm, many frustrated Rays fans are wishing the front office would get more agitated about the team’s pop-gun offense. Because with one phone call, the team could have the best-hitting prospect on the planet in the lineup.

All Wil Myers did in his age-21 season last year was hit .314/.387/.600, blasting 37 homers and winning Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award. Even if he doesn’t hit a ton right out of the gate, Myers would figure to improve a Rays lineup that badly needs a jolt of power. The problem is one of service time. Over the weekend, we reached the point where any prospect who hadn’t yet played in the majors could get called up, stick with the big club for the rest of the year, and still not become a free agent until after the 2019 season. But that’s merely the first service-time milestone the penny-pinching Rays are watching. If Tampa Bay can keep Myers in Triple-A Durham long enough to avoid him falling into the Super Two class of call-ups, the team would push his arbitration-eligibility clock back a full season, too. It’s tough to predict exactly what the cutoff date will be. For the Rays to safely dodge arbitration an extra year, they’d likely have to wait until at least mid-June before calling up their young slugger. Throw in the team’s reported desire for Myers to improve his defense in right field (he’s a converted catcher who just started patrolling the outfield two years ago), and management seems in no rush to bring him up.

The big question is whether the Rays’ prudence is a good idea. The AL East looks like a wide-open division this year, with the usually mighty Yankees battling a litany of injuries, the heavily upgraded Jays already dealing with bullpen concerns and a major injury to Jose Reyes, the Orioles potential regression candidates after posting the best record in major league history for one-run games, and the Red Sox probably better than the masses expected coming off a 69-win season, but still not quite the powerhouse team that we saw for much of the previous decade. Meanwhile, the Rays still own a strong starting rotation, even without Shields, and they figure to run well and catch the ball better than most other teams. They’ll also likely squeeze a couple of extra wins from all the little things they do well, be it shifting more aggressively than other teams on defense or deploying all kinds of aggressive matchups, not only straight left-right platoons for hitters and lefty-righty matchups for pitchers, but also leveraging ground ball vs. fly ball tendencies and many other subtle factors.

The question is whether they’ll hit. Even accounting for the offense-dampening environment of Tropicana Field, the Rays at least seem undermanned offensively and badly in need of an upgrade. Getting Scott back from the DL in early May or so figures to help. Even with a healthy Scott in the lineup, the Rays will still have a hole that needs filling, with Zobrist currently playing right field while the mediocre Kelly Johnson mans second base. Promoting Myers would push Zobrist to second — where he can deliver maximum defensive value — while also providing a potentially big boost for the Rays’ offense, as Myers ostensibly replaces Johnson. Yes, bringing up Myers tomorrow would seem to cancel any chance the Rays would have to hold back Myers’s service-time clock and save themselves several million dollars in the process. But other factors need to be considered, too, from the AL East crown looking attainable with as little as 90 wins to David Price’s price tag rising and thus his tenure with the Rays winding down, to the offense standing to benefit a little if Myers shows a little lack of polish at first, or a lot if he comes out of the gate hitting like he did during 2012′s player of the year campaign.

So what should they do? In an ideal scenario, they’d sign Myers to the kind of long-term deal that Evan Longoria inked six days into his major league career. The Rays approached Longoria and his agent, Paul Cohen, when Longoria was still in Triple-A, eventually convincing him to sign a deal that would max out at nine years and around $48 million if the three club options were all exercised. Five years in, the Rays reworked that deal, giving Longoria a nine-figure contract that will keep him in Tampa Bay through his prime. Given Tampa Bay got that first Longoria deal done, and also approached B.J. Upton with a long-term proposal when Upton was still in Triple-A, you have to figure they’ve at least had preliminary talks with Myers about locking him up for six or more years. Of course, both parties need to be interested for a deal to happen. Myers and his agent might well decide to forgo the security of a big contract right at the start of his major league career in favor of bigger riches if he doesn’t sign and then puts up the kind of big numbers many expect.

If a deal does get done, it would make the point of service time and arbitration clocks moot, and you’d see Myers up soon. Meanwhile, the longer they wait for a call-up, the more production they potentially lose. If Myers were to hit like a borderline MVP candidate out of the gate, that might make him something like a six-win player. Acknowledging that players have ebbs and flows over the course of the season, delaying a fully formed Myers arrival for two more months would then figure to cost the Rays something like two wins compared to a replacement-level player, slightly less compared to a half-decent option like Johnson. If we get merely the pretty good version of Myers (for what it’s worth, he’s hitting .294/.395/.353 with no homers so far in Triple-A this year), that might add something like one win to the Rays’ ledger. One or two wins might not sound like much right now. But in a division race that figures to include three, maybe even four or five teams bunched closely together, it could mean the difference between October baseball and golf.

There’s one other factor that makes the process even more complicated: We’ve yet to see the Rays play anything close to their best baseball. Doubt the offensive bona fides of Escobar, Loney, Fuld, and others all you want, but there’s no way they’re going to be this bad over the course of a full season. And while the Rays have seemed to struggle offensively for a while, given the no-hitters and near-no-nos thrown against them over the past few years and their perpetually low batting averages, the truth is that if and when everyone starts hitting near career norms, we’ll probably find that they’re not that bad.

Only the Mariners and Marlins have posted a lower batting average on balls in play than Tampa Bay’s .252 this year (league average is in the low .290s, and team figures rarely stay anywhere near as low as the .250s for an entire season). Meanwhile, the Rays were hitting just .183/.296/.256 with runners in scoring position heading into Monday’s games, another flukishly low number that ranks among the dregs of the league and figures to spike sharply higher as the season progresses. The Rays could just as soon wait until their regulars bounce back, maybe promote lesser Triple-A outfield prospect Brandon Guyer while the lineup’s short-handed, and roll up a winning streak in short order, given the high likelihood that their luck starts to improve.

Promoting a great talent like Myers could very well speed up the healing for the AL’s sickest offense. But the patient needs plenty of medicine, too. Right now, the best medicine is patience and time.

Filed Under: MLB, Tampa Bay Rays

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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