How will Rays handle another key injury?

June 3rd, 2022

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry's Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- As if the Rays weren’t already dealing with enough injury concerns … down went on Monday night in Arlington. After playing through various leg issues throughout the season, Tampa Bay’s star shortstop was finally forced to the 10-day injured list on Tuesday due to a strained right quad. He’s expected to be out at least two weeks.

Franco joined second baseman Brandon Lowe and a whole bunch of key pitchers on Tampa Bay’s injured list. And although both Lowe and Franco weren’t producing quite like themselves before they went down, being without both hitters seems like perhaps the toughest blow the Rays have encountered this year.

If it feels like the injuries are starting to pile up, well, they are. Tyler Glasnow, Shane Baz, Luis Patiño, Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, JT Chargois, Yonny Chirinos, Andrew Kittredge, now Lowe and Franco -- the list of key contributors goes on (and on and on). According to Spotrac, the Rays had lost a cumulative 615 days to the injured list as of Thursday, most in the American League and third in the Majors behind the Reds (721) and Cubs (617) this season.

Considering the quantity and quality of players they’ve been without, and some of the team-wide offensive slumps they’ve endured, it seems like a small wonder that Thursday’s 3-1 win over the Rangers brought the Rays (30-21) back to a season-high-tying nine games over .500 heading into Friday’s series opener against the White Sox at Tropicana Field.

This is familiar territory for the Rays, of course, who finished second in the Majors last year with 2,502 cumulative days lost, according to Spotrac, second only to the Padres’ 2,581 days. The Rays thrived despite all those injuries last season, leaning on their incredible depth as they used 61 different players and 38 different pitchers during a 100-win campaign. But while they were seemingly always replenishing an injury-riddled pitching staff, they were relatively fortunate on the position player front; Ji-Man Choi was their only hitter who spent more than 20 games on the injured list last year.

Losing Lowe, their best hitter from the last two years, and Franco, their best hitter from the first month of this season, presents a different challenge. Nobody on the roster can truly replace a pair of everyday players like Lowe and Franco. Their absence puts that much more pressure on everyone else in an already-inconsistent lineup to take a step forward.

“We're hoping for a lot of the guys to step up -- and that means some of the young players, but also some of the veteran guys that have been here, to play a role for us,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters at Globe Life Field before Thursday’s series finale against the Rangers. “We’d like to see some of our core guys that have been here for a little while start doing some good things so we can get on a little bit of a run.”

The younger guys are Lowe and Franco’s most direct replacements, switch-hitting infielders Taylor Walls (batting .148 with a .490 OPS this season) and Vidal Bruján (hitting .150 with a .409 OPS). Walls stepped up in the Rays’ series finale against the Yankees, and Bruján did the same Thursday. But it’s certainly fair to say, as Cash implied, they’d benefit from an uptick in performance by regulars like Randy Arozarena, Yandy Díaz, Mike Zunino and Choi.

The good news? The way the Rays are pitching right now, they don’t need to be the offensive juggernaut they often were last season to win games. As of Thursday afternoon, they had a 3.27 team ERA that ranked fourth in the Majors behind the Astros, Yankees and Dodgers. In 20 games since May 11, they’ve put together a 2.47 ERA. They’ve allowed three runs or fewer in 31 of their 51 games overall, going 25-6 when doing so.

They can win plenty of games just like they did Thursday: great pitching and defense, with just enough offense.