The Washington Nationals aren’t the only team struggling to put its best nine out there on any given day. The Tampa Bay Rays have suffered another injury, losing Desmond Jennings for at least the next two weeks after placing him retroactively on the disabled list. The move dates to Saturday because Jennings was used as a pinch-hitter Friday night against the Orioles. The knee injury that pushed him to the DL had already kept him out of the starting lineup for a week.
So that's an unhappy contretemps because there’s a chance Jennings could be back sooner than the full two weeks he’ll now be gone. Not that there isn’t anything wrong with some caution, of course -- now that B.J. Upton is back in action, the Rays' outfield and DH situations might seem set: Upton in center, Ben Zobrist in right, and that tasty Matt Joyce -- Brandon Guyer platoon in left field.
But that’s the thing: It’s an asymmetric substitution. The Rays aren’t replacing Jennings’ production with an outfielder, they’re replacing it with the always flexible Zobrist. That means borrowing a bat from their infield, and giving playing time to Joe Maddon’s squad of supersubs. Now a combination of Elliot Johnson, Will Rhymes, Jeff Keppinger and Sean Rodriguez have to cover second, third and shortstop because Evan Longoria is also out.
This isn’t something the Rays can roll with all that easily, especially when we’re talking about Rodriguez (.606 OPS) or Keppinger (.663) facing right-handers, or Rhymes facing anybody. Maddon will mix and match the best he can, but the limitations of what he has to work with will become more and more apparent as the talent gets exposed or over-exposed. Johnson might be the one guy in this group with the up-side to be an adequate bat in the middle infield (PECOTA projects a one in five shot at a .720 OPS or better). That’s still lower than what they were getting from Jennings -- or could reasonably expect as he was projected to deliver .730 or so as a baseline, and sitting at .731.