In addition, I also like putting the left-handed-hitting Johnson in front of Evan Longoria because Johnson can hit for power, which might give Longoria a little protection. But again, as I pointed out in my answer to the question in my last Inbox, manger Joe Maddon is likely to do anything with his lineup. He might like the way Escobar's swing path is suited to Hammel's pitches and put Escobar in the second spot. So I'm just guessing and such guesses make this time of year fun, don't they?
The Rays are usually a good fielding small-market team. Last year they struggled a little with defense because of injuries. Do you expect Tampa Bay to be able to get back to where its defense used to be when it was a postseason team?
-- Taylor L., Bradenton, Fla.
Last season, the Rays became the first team since the 1945 Washington Senators to lead the American League in ERA (3.19) and finish last in fielding (114 errors). Tampa Bay went from first in the AL in fielding in 2011 to last in '12. The last team to do that was the 2005-06 Angels. So yes, there was a profound decline on the defensive side last season. Now, having noted that decline, I think it's fair to point out that much of that decline could be attributed to injuries, which forced players to play out of position more than they normally would have.
In particular, not having Longoria at third base for much of the season really hurt the defense. Looking at this year's team, the infield appears to be shored up with the additions of Escobar at shortstop and James Loney at first. And the outfield looks good with Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist and Sam Fuld. So I believe the team can see a return to the defensive excellence it has enjoyed in the past.
I had the good fortune to call a game behind the plate when Jamey Wright was in high school in Oklahoma. Ever since that day, I have been a huge fan. What do you think of his chances are in earning a spot in the bullpen this season?
-- Joe M., Kansas City
In January, the Rays signed Wright to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Major League camp in Spring Training. The 38-year-old right-hander is a 17-year Major League veteran who has a 4.89 ERA over 592 career appearances (246 starts). In 2012, he went 5-3 with a 3.72 ERA in 66 relief outings for the Dodgers.
Wright transitioned to a full-time role in the bullpen in 2008 and has compiled a 4.15 ERA in 357 2/3 innings pitched since then, the second-most relief innings in the Major Leagues in that span. Now, what do I think his chances are of earning a spot in the bullpen? I would answer that Wright has a decent chance based on the history of Maddon's bullpens. Seems like every year, a veteran arm signs a Minor League deal and leaves camp as a member of that season's bullpen. In almost every case, that pitcher has done well, too.
Many of my fellow Rays fan friends feel that Jeff Niemann is a bust and should somehow be traded for whatever they can get for him. I have always been in awe of Jeff's pitching performances when he is healthy. He has so many good pitches and seems to have the movement to make batters look foolish at the plate. I feel if Jeff could put together a full healthy season, he could be a Cy Young candidate. What do you think?
-- Nick G., Bradenton, Fla.
Based on what I've seen of Niemann, I'm more on your side of the fence. While last year's injury can be considered plain old bad luck when he got hit on his right leg by a line drive and came away with a fractured fibula, he has been injured a lot during his career. But like I said, I'm with you on this one since I have seen Niemann dominate on many occasions. I can't think of another pitcher in the Major Leagues who can create the downward angle that Niemann does with his pitches -- it's almost like he's releasing his pitches from the top of a mountain. Of course, he's got to be able to pitch to do that. So Rays fans just have to hope Niemann will be healthy this season. He's about due to have a pain-free season.