Evan Longoria’s injury a crushing blow to Rays

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Evan Longoria might be the American League’s most indispensable player. We’re certainly about to find out now that he’s due to miss 6-8 weeks with a hamstring tear.

Longoria, the owner of a .329/.433/.561 line and 19 RBI in 23 games to start the season, was injured on a steal attempt during Monday’s game against the Mariners.

It might be a bit of an overstatement to call Longoria’s the league’s most indispensable player, considering that he’s never even finished in the top five in the MVP balloting. Longoria, though, was off to an MVP-caliber start this year, and the fact is that he’s on a team with a $65 million payroll, not the Yankees or Rangers. The Rays couldn’t afford to pay for depth over the winter.

Replacing Longoria at third base during last night’s game was Elliot Johnson, a lifetime .189/.258/.308 hitter. The Rays could also go with Jeff Keppinger there, but while he has a better stick than the alternatives, he’s still an awfully weak option as a third baseman against right-handers.

One option would be to call up Reid Brignac to play shortstop and move Sean Rodriguez to third base, giving the team it’s best defensive alignment. However, it looks like Brignac will stay in Triple-A for now, with former Tigers second baseman Will Rhymes coming up to replace Longoria. Rhymes would serve as an occasional second baseman when Ben Zobrist plays the outfield.

Another possibility: acquiring the right-handed-hitting Jose Lopez to help out at third base. Lopez was just designated for assignment by Cleveland after hitting .190 in five games during April. He hasn’t been any good these last two years, but he did impress this March and he has more upside than the alternatives.

The Rays will struggle to hit for power with Longoria out, which could lead to a Hideki Matsui promotion in a few weeks. In the meantime, Luke Scott and Matt Joyce will need to perform. Switch-hitter Ben Zobrist could hit third in between the lefties Pena and Scott.

For what it’s worth, the Rays went 19-12 with Longoria out of the lineup last year, so they did more than tread water without him. Still, he was the team’s driving force during its late push to overtake the Red Sox, hitting 17 homers and driving in 46 runs over the final two months. Life will get more difficult without him.

The Cubs are in desperate need of relief

Associated Press
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Tonight in Chicago Yu Darvish of the Dodgers will face off against Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs. If this were Game 1, we’d have a lot to say about the Dodgers’ trade deadline pickup and the Cubs’ budding ace. If this series continues on the way it’s been going, however, each of them will be footnotes because it has been all about the bullpens.

The Cubs, you may have heard, are having tremendous problems with relief pitching. Both their own and with the opposition’s. Cubs relievers have a 7.03 ERA this postseason, and have allowed six runs on eight hits and have walked six batters in seven innings of work. And no, the relief struggles aren’t just a matter of Joe Maddon pushing the wrong buttons (even though, yeah, he has pushed the wrong buttons).

Maddon pushed Wade Davis for 44 pitches in Game 5 of the NLDS, limiting his availability in Games 1 and 2. That pushing is a result of a lack of relief depth on the Cubs. Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. all have talent and all have had their moments, but none of them are the sort of relievers we have come to see in the past few postseasons. The guys who, when your starter tosses 80 pitches in four innings like Jon Lester did the other night, can be relied upon to shut down the opposition for three and a half more until your lights-out closer can get the four-out save.

In contrast, the Dodgers bullpen has been dominant, tossing eight scoreless innings. Indeed, Dodgers relievers have tossed eight almost perfect innings, allowing zero hits and zero walks while striking out nine Cubs batters. The only imperfection came when Kenley Jansen hit Anthony Rizzo in Game 2. That’s it. Compare this to the past couple of postseasons where the only truly reliable arm down there was Jansen, and in which Dodgers managers have had to rely on Clayton Kershaw to come on in relief. That has not been a temptation at all as the revamped L.A. pen, featuring newcomers Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson. Suffice it to say, Joe Blanton is not missed.

Which brings us back to Kyle Hendricks. He has pitched twice this postseason, pitching seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLDS but getting touched for four runs on nine hits while allowing a couple of dingers in Game 5. If the good Hendricks shows up, Maddon will be able to ride him until late in the game in which a now-rested Davis and maybe either Strop or Edwards can close things out in conventional fashion, returning this series to competitiveness. If the bad Hendricks does, he’ll have to do what he did in that NLDS Game 5, using multiple relievers and, perhaps, a repurposed starter in relief while grinding Davis into dust again. That was lucky to work there and doing it without Davis didn’t work in Game 2 on Sunday night.

So it all falls to Hendricks. The Dodgers have shown how soft the underbelly of the Cubs pen truly is. If they get to Hendricks early and get into that pen, you have to like L.A’s chances, not just in this game, but for the rest of the series, as bullpen wear-and-tear builds up quickly. It’s pretty simple: Hendricks has to give the Cubs some innings tonight. There is no other option available.

Just ask Joe Maddon. He’s tried.