Tampa Bay Rays All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria will return to action sometime before the end of the month, according to Aaron Gleeman of msnbc.com. Longoria, 25, is one of the top ten position players in baseball and will give Tampa Bay a much-needed offensive boost.
When Longoria retakes his place at the hot corner, though, the Rays will need to perform a lineup shakeup. In Longoria’s absence, Sean Rodriguez and Felipe Lopez have moved into a timeshare at third base (with no resultant discovery of their lost potential) and Ben Zobrist has locked himself in at second base. Matt Joyce has been the primary right field, and of course Sam Fuld (or, as Larry Bird said I think, “God disguised as Sam Fuld”) has enveloped left field in shadows of lollipops.
Upon Longoria’s return, someone has to lose playing time. Before Longoria went down, both Rodriguez and Lopez were essentially bench players. Zobrist began the year as the starting second baseman, with Joyce in right field and The Ageless Johnny Damon in left field.
During Longoria’s furlough, though, the Rays also lost Manny Ramirez (or Manny Ramirez lost them, or they lost each other, but he’s gone), leaving Damon with primary designated hitter duties in the long term. Therefore, slammin’ floppin’ Sam Fuld has attained a full-time role without stealing playing time from Joyce, Rodriguez or Zobrist. Therefore, Longoria will step into a situation very different from the one he left three weeks ago.
Zobrist’s playing time is certainly not in danger. He does everything well on the diamond, and has found his stroke over the last week or so at the plate. He will keep his full-time role and bat in the middle of the Rays’ order, but may move from second base out to right field.
Rodriguez and Lopez each have the versatility to move to second base, and Rodriguez actually fields the position pretty well. That position seems to be his for the taking even after Lopez outplayed him at third.
That leaves left field. As venerable a defense as it would create, the Rays cannot play both Fuld and Joyce at that position. Fuld is the better and faster defender, but obviously, Joyce has a better pedigree as a hitter and is viewed as more of a long-term solution offensively. Fuld is a great story–a great American, really. But shortly after Longoria returns, Fuld has to become the odd man out.
Joe Maddon, who ought to wear a lab coat in the dugout rather than a hoodie, can be trusted to make the right choice about when riding Fuld’s hot hand would get in the way of good baseball logic. Both men bat left-handed, so a platoon is not an option. Fuld might get some playing time with right-handed opponents on the mound, since Maddon could move Zobrist into second base and bench right-handed Rodriguez. In general, though, the time has nearly come for the Legend to pass into Lore.