Deeper lineup should help Longoria bounce back

All-Star third baseman's offensive production has waned in recent seasons

March 18th, 2016

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- These are the Rays, which means there are challenges and there are compromises that accompany the bid to outperform payroll in the American League East.

In order to address a lack of balance in the lineup, the Rays dealt from their depth in the back end of the bullpen. And now we learn would-be closer Brad Boxberger has had a core muscle procedure that will sideline him for at least the first month-plus of the regular season.

So… was it worth moving Jake McGee for Corey Dickerson? Only the regular-season run totals and save percentages can answer that question. But there is a comfort level the Rays have with their offensive group now that simply didn't exist at the outset of 2015, and it's one best voiced by their lineup's central figure.

"We know the pitching is going to be there," Evan Longoria said here Friday. "It's always been there for us. And I think we're very excited about the prospect of having a more potent, more productive offense."

Spring:Tickets | Ballpark | 40-man roster | NRIs

How about starting with a more potent, more productive Longo?

There was a time, in the pre-Trout haze, when Longoria, who survived a minor shin scare Thursday and should be back in the Rays' lineup Saturday, was routinely and accurately labeled as the best two-way player in the sport, an impact defender with a robust bat whose power production was all the more notable given the conditions of his home park.

But Longo's power has slid considerably the past two seasons, with isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) marks of .151 in 2014 and .166 in '15 -- falling far short of the .238 career standard he established through '13.

How much of this comes down to (not) having a little help from his friends? Hard to say, but we might have an answer soon.

Though he's posted up for at least 160 games in each of the past three years, Longoria has battled minor health issues that, hitting coach Derek Shelton admitted, have compelled Longoria to make minor adjustments to his swing. But there's also the mental weight that comes with being the opposition's focal point night after night, and that could provide a window into understanding why more than 31 percent of his swings the past two years have come on pitches outside the strike zone -- by far the highest chase rates in his career.

"I know a lot of people don't like to talk about protection, but protection's real," Shelton said. "When a pitcher has the ability to target one guy in the lineup, that makes a difference. Forever here, it's been Longo. When we didn't have the supporting cast around him that could do the damage he could do, it becomes harder for him."

Longoria agreed.

"I think it's just one of those immeasurables," he said. "If you play the game, you really understand how important it is. It's more mental than anything. This year, it's been pretty evident this spring that the guys we have now are feeding off of each other. I think it's a pretty big component."

Tampa Bay's components are complicated, and that's a good thing. Where once this club was too right-handed-heavy, contributing to the AL's third-lowest OPS (.703) against right-handed pitching, the Rays now the proper pieces to make the most of their penchant for platoons.

Though it remains to be seen how the daily lineups will look, Longoria, Logan Forsythe and Kevin Kiermaier are probably the only three guys you could safely label as true everyday players right now. Manager Kevin Cash will have new weapons at his disposal against righties in the form of Dickerson and Logan Morrison, and Steve Pearce could/should improve the power production against lefties. Kiermaier, a defensive whiz who was somewhat miscast as a leadoff hitter for part of 2015, can now be placed in a lower-profile spot of the order where his bat can continue to develop.

You combine all this with the fundamental adjustment in approach the Rays made midway through 2015 -- getting more aggressive early in counts and elevating their runs-per-game mark by 0.74 -- and there's an increase in confidence.

"There's a very optimistic feeling," Cash said. "The additions have been great. They've bought in [with the approach], and they're very good hitters."

Longoria, of course, is the and most accomplished hitter of the bunch, and the hope with Tampa Bay is that a stronger supporting cast will get him more pitches to hit and fewer to chase.

"Everybody would love to hit in a lineup with five or six guys that are the best hitters in the game, but the reality is it just doesn't happen," Longoria said. "But if you get a lineup, top to bottom, that you know can produce -- be it hitting home runs or drawing walks or stealing bases or just putting pressure on the defense -- all of those things factor into the protection aspect. It doesn't have to necessarily be a guy that's going to hit 40 home runs. It's that entire offensive cog that makes you confident."

Unfortunately, when you're on a restricted budget, sometimes you have to rob confidence from one area to create it in another. So it is with the Rays and their McGee-less bullpen, which is depleted all the more by the temporary loss of last year's AL saves leader. There, too, Cash will have to mix and match, and perhaps Alex Colome and Xavier Cedeno will build on the strong stats they posted down the stretch last season.

Fundamentally, though, Tampa Bay expects to have more leads to protect. This team played 56 one-run games and an MLB-high 94 games decided by two runs or fewer last season. There was a clear need to give the starting staff more room to breathe with early leads.

A deeper, more balanced lineup should help. And perhaps it will help reacquaint us with the Longoria we once knew and loved.