The Rays Lose More Top Talent to Injury

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays’ injury tally continued to climb over the weekend as the team added two key parts of its lineup — shortstop Wander Franco and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier — to the injured list. Not to be outdone by the hitters, pitcher Jeffrey Springs joined them after his first game back from a family emergency. If the season ended today, the Rays would be the American League’s second Wild Card team, but five other clubs, including the blazing hot Orioles, are within five games.

Franco’s injury is the most concerning, both in terms of its severity and the resulting loss of production. The team’s franchise player broke his hamate bone on Saturday in the first inning against the Reds while fouling off a 100 mph Hunter Greene fastball. While having a fastball explosive enough to indirectly break bones probably adds to the flame-thrower’s mystique, for Franco, it’s a massive setback, one that comes just a couple of weeks after missing a month with a quad injury. With an expected recovery in the six-to-eight week range, it’s unlikely the Rays will have their shortstop back in the lineup much before September, and any significant setback could end his season.

Year-in and year-out, Tampa prides itself on having one of the deepest rosters in baseball, but replacing Franco is a tall order. Indeed, a few weeks ago, ZiPS actually projected him as the AL player who would be the sixth-hardest to replace due to a theoretical season-ending injury. With a .260/.308/.396 line over 58 games (good for a 104 wRC+), his production has been down compared to his rookie season, but would be considered a massive achievement for any other 21-year-old shortstop. He projected as a five-win player coming into the season, and his play so far hasn’t changed that much; all of our projection systems here anticipated at least a 120 wRC+ the rest of the way, and Franco was underperforming the peripheral estimates of both Statcast’s xStats and ZiPS’ zStats.

Taylor Walls is the backup plan at short, and while his glove was highly touted in the minors, his defensive stats in the majors across three infield positions have been decidedly mixed. The bigger problem, though, is his offense; he’s now played the equivalent of nearly a full season in the majors and has accumulated a triple-slash of .183/.274/.277, which comes out to a paltry 64 wRC+. ZiPS, Steamer, and the rest of the Silicon Gang project Walls for around an 80 wRC+, an improvement but still just a shadow of what was expected from Franco.

If Walls comes a-tumbling down, Yu Chang, a waiver claim last week from the Pittsburgh Pirates, is likely the next line of defense. ZiPS is at least slightly more comfortable with his bat than Walls’, projecting a 91 wRC+, but he doesn’t come with the latter’s defensive upside. Tristan Gray has shown impressive power for Triple-A Durham, with 18 homers in just 239 at-bats, but has done little else, resulting in an OPS of just .708; he probably isn’t a viable option.

The Rays have a history of busy Julys and have shown a willingness to pick up veterans as long as the financial hit is only short-term. There’s just one problem with finding a Franco replacement, though: there’s not much out there. Unlike last season, there aren’t interesting free agents-to-be shortstops on losing teams; Trea Turner and Dansby Swanson are both unsigned past this season, but the Rays have a better shot of patching up Franco with a popsicle stick splint and duct tape than they do of prying those players away from the Dodgers or Braves. José Iglesias would normally be a possible pickup, if a fairly unexciting one, but that would involve coming to a meeting of the minds with the Rockies. Tampa may simply have to go with what they already have at shortstop and take the hit in wins.

Of course, the problems extend beyond Franco. A few weeks ago, my colleague Ben Clemens wrote about how the Rays’ offensive depth was being stretched due to injury. The loss of Kiermaier means that the majority of the team’s expected starting lineup coming into 2022 is now out due to injury. Kiermaier was placed on the 10-day IL with hip inflammation, but the extent of that injury is not yet known. This is his second trip to IL with hip pain; the last time, a cortisone shot allowed him to get back onto the field. This time, he will be seen by a specialist, and hip surgery could severely limit or even end his 2022 season.

Long one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball, the Rays value Kiermaier highly enough to merit keeping him for the entirety of the six-year, $53.5 million contract he signed in 2017. While the Rays are set to enjoy the next decade of Franco , with only an $13 million option year remaining and Kiermaier turning 33 early next season, the franchise may be starting to look beyond him. They’ve been increasingly spelling him against lefties, sitting him in the majority of those starts, with Brett Phillips typically replacing him. Both Phillips and Josh Lowe have struggled at the plate, but with Manuel Margot out for an extended stretch and Harold Ramírez not an ideal glove option in right field, both will get ample opportunity to turn their seasons around in the coming weeks.

Should worse come to worst with Kiermaier, the options in the outfield at the deadline are more varied than they are at short. The Pirates have so far rebuffed teams interested in Bryan Reynolds, but if that’s just a negotiating position, the Rays ought to be one of the teams interested. The organization also has a long history of making deals with the A’s, and I’d love to see them close a deal for Ramón Laureano.

That brings us to the third injured player from this weekend, pitcher Jeffrey Springs. Springs was long one of my favorite breakout candidates and he did so as a reliever in 2021. He’s continued to be effective in the follow-up campaign, enough to motivate the Rays to start building up his pitch count to use him as a bonafide starter , as my colleague Justin Choi noted in May. Through June, his pitch count regularly got into the 90s. Overall, in 11 starts, he’s put up an ERA of 3.02, though with a less exciting FIP of 4.00. He may not be a starter if and when Tyler Glasnow and Brendan McKay return next year, but for now, he’s been one of the best fifth starters in the majors and ought to be a valuable swingman in a potential playoff run.

Luckily for Springs and the Rays, his injury — pain in his lower right leg — looks less severe than the ones afflicting Franco and Kiermaier, at least as of press time. He may only miss a couple of starts thanks to the All-Star Break, and with a baby currently in the hospital, giving him more time off than the seven-day limit for emergency family leave allows was likely additional motivation to place him on the IL rather than take a wait-and-see attitude with his leg.

Without these three injuries, ZiPS would project Tampa Bay with a 58.2% chance of making the playoffs. Factoring in the expected time missed, ZiPS has dropped that to just under break-even, at 48.3%. The Rays are comfortable playing the underdog role, so it would be a mistake to write them off. But whether or not they make yet another deep run into October, this was a weekend I’m sure the club would rather forget.

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