Is it a blip, or a problem? Rays are running low on left-handed bats

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s not hard being a Rays fan, it’s just different.

For instance, you need to accept player turnover as a devotional hazard. You need to look beyond conventional numbers to understand the strategies within. And, more than anything, you need to worship at the altar of contingency plans.

This is what the Rays do better than anyone. They don’t stop at Plan B or even Plan C. They foresee issues, problems and fluke occurrences no sane front office would even consider. Between three elbow injuries, a bad back and an oblique strain, their normal rotation covered barely half of their starts in 2023. And still, the Rays won 99 games.

Their starting second baseman finished the regular season on the injured list and their starting shortstop ended it in limbo. And still, the Rays reached the postseason for a fifth consecutive season.

This is what they do. This is how they are built.

And this is their challenge one week into the 2024 season.

The lineup the Rays put on the field against the Rangers in a 4-1 series-ending loss on Wednesday afternoon was not ideal. Worse yet, it could be a continuing problem for the foreseeable future.

The Rays are lacking proven left-handed hitters. Which is unusual for a team that usually does depth and versatility at elite levels. And it’s a problem considering they’ll likely face a right-handed starting pitcher in more than 70% of their games.

How did this happen? Bad news followed by bad breaks.

Wander Franco’s legal problems in the Dominican Republic not only robbed the Rays of a switch-hitting All-Star at shortstop, but it necessitated making a trade for a replacement. Tampa Bay dealt Luke Raley to Seattle for Jose Caballero, which meant the Rays had now lost a switch-hitter in the infield and a lefty in the outfield who had combined for 31 home runs against right-handed pitching last season.

And that was just the start.

Rightfielder Josh Lowe suffered an oblique strain in spring training, and then Jonathan Aranda broke a finger. Suddenly, the Rays’ lineup was top-heavy with right-handed bats. Complicating matters, second baseman Brandon Lowe left Wednesday’s game with tightness in his left torso, although the hope is that it is a day-to-day issue.

I asked manager Kevin Cash if there was a challenge in their current configuration against right-handed pitching.

“Yeah, there is,” he said. “We work really hard with being able to be pretty thick with lefties and righties and being able to match up very well. I’m hoping Brandon is not out of the lineup but we certainly need Josh back as soon as possible. He’s a big part of our offense. And with what (Aranda) was doing in spring training.

“I still feel like we’ve done alright, we’re hanging in there. It’s kind of been a unique homestand where we knock the cover off the ball and then we go quiet. Just back and forth it feels like every game.”

It’s not as if this has caught the Rays off guard. They traded reliever Andrew Kittredge to St. Louis in January to get left-handed-hitting utility player Richie Palacios. And when the injuries hit in spring training, they signed switch-hitting infielder Niko Goodrum and left-handed first baseman Dominic Smith to minor-league deals. They also traded for left-handed-hitting catcher Ben Rortvedt to platoon with Rene Pinto.

Still, the early results have not been good.

The sample size is incredibly small, but the Rays have started the season 1-4 against right-handed starting pitchers and 2-0 against lefties. They are hitting .207 with a .669 OPS against those right-handed starters, while hitting .286 with a .744 OPS against the two lefty starters.

Brandon Lowe, who said after the game he does not expect to miss any additional time, dismissed the first week’s struggles as a unique circumstance against top pitchers. The Rays have already faced Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman and Nathan Eovaldi. All three have multiple All-Star appearances in their past.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s a struggle to face right-handed pitching, it doesn’t feel any different than facing any pitchers any other day,” Lowe said. “We just ran into Eovaldi, who’s got very, very good stuff … it’s not as if we’ve been facing an average righty up there. We’ve faced some really good arms. At a certain point, hitting catches up to pitching. We’ll face them again, I’m sure. We’ll see (Eovaldi) again, we’ll see Gausman and it’ll be on us to make it a different outcome.”

Obviously, the Rays have plenty of time. Time for injuries to heal, and maybe time for reinforcements to show up.

Time, perhaps, for more contingency plans.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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