Two nights ago, Joe Maddon decided to give Evan Longoria a night off to rest his sore hamstring. Finding a replacement was easy, as Maddon had Willy Aybar sitting on the bench. And figuring out where to bat Aybar was apparently easy also, as Maddon slotted him right into Longo’s #3 spot. Maddon’s move paid off as Aybar had 3 hits including his 7th home run. Not bad for a guy that was making only his third start in the past two weeks.
Such is life for the manager who was handed the best bench in baseball at the beginning of the year. A bench that included Aybar and Ben Zobrist.
And who can argue with the numbers. If Aybar’s and Zobrist’s stats are projected over a full season (600 plate appearances each), Aybar would hit .285-25-88 with .380 OBP and an .859 OPS. Zobrist’s numbers would be even more impressive at .297-37-107 with a .419 OBP and a 1.052 OPS. Add to that the fact that both players can solid defense at multiple positions. Aybar has started games this season at 3 of the 4 infield positions, while Zobrist has started a game at every position except catcher and first base.
The advantage of big payroll teams is not their high-priced starting lineup, although that certainly helps. No, it is their ability to overcome injuries and free agent mistakes. Low payroll teams can’t afford too add payroll or give big money to non-starters.
In a world where the Yankees have a payroll ($201 million) three times as big as the Rays ($63 million) and the Red Sox have a payroll ($122 million) twice that of the Rays, the Rays bench has been one of the great equalizers.
How many teams have a Ben Zobrist who can fill in as an everyday second baseman as he did when Aki Iwamura went down with a knee injury? And Joe Maddon still has Will Aybar on the bench who would start for most teams.
Meanwhile, the Yankees find out that Alex Rodriguez can’t play everyday, so they traded two prospects so Eric Hinske can start one game a week. And later this month, the Yankees will ship out more prospects and assume more payroll to fill the holes in their bullpen. These are moves a small market team cannot make.
But with the depth of the pitching on the Rays and in their organization, and the emergence of The Wonder Twins, Aybar and Zobrist, the Rays can now compete with the Big Boys without taking on more payroll or trading away the future.