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Rays retain Kapler, but outfield still in doubt

Oct 27, 2009, 4:38 PM EDT

The Rays assured themselves of entering 2010 with a fourth outfielder by re-signing free agent Gabe Kapler to a one-year, $1.05 million contract on Tuesday, but it’s still a mystery just who he’ll be playing behind next year.
Kapler’s role in 2009 was to start over Gabe Gross in right field against lefties. The platoon worked out exquisitely early on. Kapler had an 839 OPS in 113 at-bats prior to the All-Star break, while Gross came in at an OBP-heavy 802 as the starter against righties. Maybe that’s not spectacular, but they also played quality defense and they combined to cost the thrifty Rays a total of $2.225 million for the year.
Unfortunately, Gross, in particular, collapsed after that. He hit just .160 with a 512 OPS after the break and lost most of his playing time to Ben Zobrist after Akinori Iwamura returned. Kapler also fell off to a 681 OPS. For the season, he hit an exceptional .276/.379/.552 in 145 at-bats against lefties and a dreadful .150/.190/.167 in 60 at-bats versus righties.
Gross is unlikely to return next year, so it’s unclear what Kapler’s role will be. The Rays could opt for only a minor change and stick with Carl Crawford in left and B.J. Upton in center, with Matt Joyce, the return from the Tigers for Edwin Jackson, taking over as the right fielder against right-handers. However, the Rays were clearly disappointed by Joyce’s play this season and didn’t even give him a September callup.
The Rays have other options. Crawford is a year away from free agency and would fetch a high price in trade. Upton’s stock is well down, but he’s also getting talked about as a trade possibility. He’s more likely than Crawford to go. Zobrist appears to be penciled in at second base, but the Rays could throw a changeup and opt to keep Iwamura, forcing Zobrist to the outfield. Sean Rodriguez, a longtime Angels prospect acquired in the Scott Kazmir deal, could also compete for outfield time, and top prospect Desmond Jennings may be a factor by the middle of the season.
If the Rays don’t have a left-handed-hitting outfielder for Kapler to platoon with, he’d likely be useless to the team. He’s a liability when starting against righties, so he’s not someone who would fare well if forced into the lineup on a regular basis by injuries. The 34-year-old is worth the $1.05 million committed to him, but he needs to be used correctly. The Rays should have waited to see if he was still going to be the right fit for the team.

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