In 2009, Ben Zobrist, burst on to the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, to hit 27 home runs and post a .948 OPS. Last year, John Jaso, surprised many when he posted a .378 OBP in 109 games after it looked like he would spend the season in triple-A.
Who will be the Rays breakout star in 2011? This week we will take a look at several players that could be the next Zorilla.
Up first: Matt Joyce…
Why It Might Happen:
Joyce will be 26 in 2010 and should get 300 at bats for the first time in his career. And as a regular starter, we should finally see what Joyce was born to do: hit. Against righties last year, Joyce hit .262, with a home run every 19 at bats.
So even if he just gets 300-350 at bats, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him hit 20 home runs. And as a guy that has a 50 percent flyball rate, and is entering his prime years, he could easily hit 25 home runs, even if he is just a part-time player.
But Joe Maddon says Joyce will start facing lefties. And if that comes sooner, rather than later, Joyce could get 400-450 at bats. And all of the sudden the Rays have the big stick replacement they needed for Carlos Pena.
Why It Might Not Happen:
Joyce has 51 career at bats versus left-handed pitchers. The worry is that he is too far removed from facing lefties on a regular basis, and any ability he might have had to hit southpaws, is now lost.
And we still don’t even know how many starts Joyce will get against lefties. If those starts are few and far between, it is hard to imagine Joyce will be an impact bat with just 300 at bats.
The worst-case scenario not only has Joyce getting very few starts versus lefties, but missing out on starts versus righties. With Ben Zobrist likely needing regular starts in the outfield, the addition of Johnny Damon, the playing time Joe Maddon will certainly try to find for Sam Fuld and the eventual promotion of Desmond Jennings, the outfield situation is crowded. It is not hard to imagine a season where Joyce isn’t even an everyday player against righties, and fails to get 300 at bats.
And if that happens, the numbers will still be underachieving.
What We Expect:
The problem Maddon faces is the cost of getting Joyce experience. Joyce can probably grow in to a very good everyday player with some strong numbers. But in doing so, Maddon faces the challenge of knowing that Joyce might be the weaker option in some games versus lefties early in the season. So is the benefit down the road, worth the risk up front? It is for the player, but it might not be for the team in a race where every win counts.
Ultimately, we see Joyce getting 90-100 starts. And in the end we see him hitting .270 with 20 home runs and a lot of questions about what could have been if he was the everyday right fielder.