Evan Longoria came off the DL for the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday, and the team is 2-0 since his return. Longoria only has one hit in the two games, a single on Tuesday, and has struck out four times in eight plate appearances. However, I'm not an idiot that's going to draw conclusions from a two game sample size. That's just absurd. But Longoria's return should provide a huge boost to the team…the question is, will that boost be enough to put the Rays into the playoffs?
The Rays are currently six games above .500 at 58-52, and are six out in the AL East. They've made some headway since the All-Star Break, when the team was 7.5 behind the Yankees and only three games above .500. In the wild card race, which is probably the better bet for the Rays, they're just 1.5 behind the trio of Baltimore, Oakland, and Detroit, all three of whom are tied for the two slots in the playoffs. Joining the Rays at 1.5 back are the Angels, who have played two more games than the Rays, but have the same winning percentage. At the All-Star Break, the Rays were still just 1.5 out of the race…however, they were well-ahead of the Tigers and A's in the standings.
With Longoria out, the Rays haven't been able to adequately fill his spot on the diamond. The team has used supersub Jeff Keppinger for 79 at bats with Longoria out, and he's delivered with a .915 OPS…but just one homer. Sean Rodriguez, who has gotten time at third, short, and second, has had an anemic bat all year, and in 86 at bats as a third baseman, he has just a .616 OPS and two homers. The Rays also gave 68 at bats at third to the now-released duo of Brooks Conrad and Drew Sutton, who combined for one homer and a disastrous OPS between the pair. Before Longoria's return, the Rays used Ryan Roberts, acquired before the trade deadline from the Diamondbacks, as their third baseman. He's provided them with a .495 OPS.
Combined to that merry band, Longoria looks like Babe Ruth. He's never hit fewer than 20 homers in a season during his major league career, and he *averaged* 6.7 fWAR over his first four seasons. His career low OPS is just .850. Throughout all that analysis of the Rays' options at third base, I never mentioned defense. Longoria is an elite defender, averaging 13.7 UZR and a hair under +18 DRS in each of his first four seasons. Tampa Bay's non-Longoria third basemen this year totaled just +4 DRS and only 1.2 UZR with Tampa Bay's franchise player injured.
With 52 games left in the Rays' season, they're in a pretty good position to make the playoffs. Having Longoria back will help a ton, and even if he only has an .850 OPS with his typical great defense, that's probably going to be worth two wins over the rest of the season. Compared to the rest of the Rays' third basemen, that's probably a one win improvement. But with Longoria back, it also allows the Rays to shift the rest of their team. Keppinger can continued to DH full-time instead of the injured an ineffective Luke Scott, and the released and ineffective Hideki Matsui. With Matt Joyce coming off of the DL last week, the Rays can now use Ben Zobrist full-time at second base (or shortstop, where he's getting a rare start toady) and get one of Rodriguez or Eliot Johnson out of the lineup.
Over the season's final third, the Rays are finally back to full strength. Combine the additions of Longoria and Joyce with Matt Moore and Alex Cobb kicking their pitching into gear, and the Rays are primed to make a big move towards the playoffs. A schedule that sees the Rays playing the Twins, Mariners, and Royals in nine of their next 14 games should put them in a great position to go on a run and get to the top of the wild card standings.
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