It’s time for our Depth Chart Discussions to begin. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will begin breaking them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find them gathered here.
With their recent dedication to platoons and positional flexibility, the Rays have never really been easy to recognize in the outfield. But that is especially true entering 2015. Understated sometimes-outfield star Ben Zobrist is now in Oakland. Elite prospect Wil Myers is in San Diego. Matt Joyce is in Los Angeles. What’s left in Tampa is a collection of young outfielders who are likely more valuable in real life than in fantasy. However, one of those players offers a bit more fantasy value than you might expect.
At 28 years old, Desmond Jennings is the veteran of the Rays’ primary outfielders. Now that he is three full seasons into his major league career, it finally feels safe to assume that the breakout will never come. Despite consistently high batting averages in the minors, Jennings has failed to hit .260 in a season in the majors, and that is the category he needs to be elite to be a top 50 outfielder. He does have moderate power and speed. He’s hit between 10 and 15 home runs and stolen between 15 and 31 bases in each of the past four seasons. But that’s just not enough production to offset the low average, and despite his leadoff spot, he is unlikely to reach 90 runs scored in a lineup that is more bereft of power than even a usual Rays’ squad.
Kevin Kiermaier reached the majors because of his reputation as an exceptional defender. Currently in right field, he will likely become the Rays center fielder if or when the team loses Jennings to free agency or trades him to save on his arbitration costs. You wouldn’t have known Kiermaier was glove-first based on his insane .399 first half wOBA. He cooled off dramatically over the second half (.273 wOBA) such that his .263/.315/.450 triple slash for the season is not too far removed from Steamer’s .248/.303/.377 projection for him in 2015. In particular, Steamer is bearish on his power potential. Kiermaier hit 10 home runs in 364 plate appearances a season ago, but he is projected to reach just nine this season in close to 500 plate appearances.
Kiermaier’s half splits are sizable, but his more important split may be his .362 wOBA versus right-handed pitchers and .225 wOBA versus lefties. The Rays may consider Kiermaier’s defense too valuable to bench him against southpaws, but Brandon Guyer—who had a .343 wOBA versus lefties and a .296 wOBA versus righties—makes a natural offensive platoon partner. Guyer has no fantasy relevance, but his presence is likely enough to render Kiermaier undraftable except in deep AL-only formats.
The most interesting Rays outfielder is also the newest. Steven Souza was one of the principal players the Rays acquired in the Wil Myers deal. Nominally, Souza is a prospect. His 26 plate appearances for the Nationals last year were the first of his major league career. However, Souza is actually a year older than Myers (and Kiermaier), but that should not scare you away. Souza may never have been a top 100 prospect in baseball, but he is the ultimate Rays find. Similar to Ben Zobrist, Souza will likely not produce elite totals in any standard fantasy category, but his solid contributions across the board could make him a useful player.
As Carson Cistulli pointed out after the trade, Souza is one of just three players projected to produce a 20-20 season (prorated to 600 plate appearances) this season. His speed potential may even be greater. Souza stole 26 bases in 407 plate appearances in Triple-A in 2014 and was only caught seven times. Meanwhile, Souza walked in more than 12 percent of his plate appearances in both Triple-A in 2014 and in Double-A in 2013. His plate discipline should help him maintain a high floor, and a likely spot in the top half of the depleted Rays’ order should help inflate his RBI and runs totals. It is not enough to make him mixed-league relevant just yet, but Souza is an attractive outfield option with upside in deeper formats.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt