Iwamura may be looking for new role
Top prospect Longoria may take over at third base in 2008
ST. PETERSBURG -- Akinori Iwamura has had a decent rookie season, but lurking just below the Major League surface is Evan Longoria. And the likely question isn't whether Longoria is going to take over third base, the question is when.
Thus, Iwamura likely will need to find another position, perhaps second base, shortstop or even a utility role.
Prior to Iwamura signing with the Rays on Dec. 15, 2006, such a scenario was presented to Iwamura.
"We talked to him about it extensively right before we signed him," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "We told him one day things may change and we wanted to get his thought process on it. And he had all the right answers, 'I can do whatever it takes to help the team win.' Or, 'It may take me a little time to play somewhere different, because I've played third for so long now.' But he had the exact right mindset about it."
Friedman said it's "premature" to talk about Iwamura changing positions right now.
"We're not ready to comment publicly about what we're going to do there," Friedman added. "Obviously we'll talk to him before we do that. But I'm fully confident he'll have the exact right mindset to attack any challenge we present him with."
Longoria appears to be the real deal. The Rays selected him out of Long Beach State with the third overall pick of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. All he has done since is hit. After hitting .315 with 18 home runs and 58 RBIs in 62 Minor League games in 2006, Longoria went out and posted a .307 average with 21 home runs and 76 RBIs at Double-A Montgomery this year and .269 with five home runs and 19 RBIs at Triple-A Durham.
When Friedman was asked if they have ruled out Longoria making the team out of Spring Training next year he replied: "We have not ruled that out."
"Obviously, [Longoria] only played a month in Triple-A this year," said Friedman, who added that he showed well. "He's a tremendously talented player. We're going to keep an open mind as we go into Spring Training and we're going to see how all the different musical chairs kind of sort themselves out."
Rays manager Joe Maddon said Longoria's performance in 2007 caught his eye.
"I can't help but see it," said Maddon, explaining how the Minor League numbers stared at him from the scoreboard for most of the summer. "They put it up there every night."
While Maddon has looked at the numbers and thought about having the 6-foot-2, 210-pound third baseman swinging for the fences at Tropicana Field, that's as far as he allows himself to go in the process.
"This is a situation where you really rely on the people who see him every day to make that evaluation," Maddon said. "When you're in the Major Leagues, it's easy to look at something like that and say, 'I really want to have that here, now.' And I think that's kind of what's happened here in the past, and I don't want to go there.
"For me, that is not my decision. I really mean that. I believe it's a decision by Andrew and everybody else who gets to see him. They get to talk to him. They know him. Is he ready to be here? If they say, 'Yes, I'm all for it, if they say, 'It's not time,' I say it's not time. And that's how I look at this. I used to really get annoyed when I was in charge of the Minor Leagues and Major League people wouldn't listen to us. And even being a Major League guy I'd see the times where they wouldn't listen to the Minor League people. And we need to do that. And that's how a good organization works."
Heading into the 2007 season, the plan had been for Iwamura to get a look at some other positions besides third base. The idea being he could play second, center field and perhaps even shortstop. But third is the only position he has played this season.
Maddon attributed Iwamura not being moved around to the success B.J. Upton has had in center field and the acquisition of Josh Wilson.
"Willie showing up, if [Brendan Harris] was still at shortstop, you might think about seeing him at second some right now," Maddon said. "But I think Willie has really permitted a lot of this to happen. If we pick him up and he doesn't play to the level that he has, then we'd be looking at something different right now. But [Wilson's] level of play, both offensively and defensively, merits him getting to play."
Without seeing Iwamura play other positions, Maddon speculated about what he might look like elsewhere in the field.
"I look at his arm strength as being more adaptable at second base than shortstop," Maddon said. "Although, with his athleticism and range, he could probably play shortstop. Based on what I'm seeing, had to stir it around in my gut, based on what I know, I'd say second base. It is a tough call."
Maddon likened Iwamura's body type to former Major Leaguer Lenn Sakata, who played a lot of shortstop.
"Lenny was built that way and Lenny could play all over the place," Maddon said. "Lenny was a good man. And Aki's got that body style and that method of movement which I think can play out there. If I had to bet on it, I think I'd give him a crack at second base first, though."
However, assuming the second base job is not a given based on the play of Brendan Harris, who has been an offensive force on this year's team, Iwamura may become a super-utility player.
Iwamura understands the presence of Longoria.
"Of course if everybody is talking about Longoria, I am interested in seeing how he plays third base," Iwamura said. "As far as what I'm hearing about him, he's a good prospect. If he's only able to play third base, I will try a different position."
Iwamura said nothing is "really official" and that nobody from the Rays has approached him about making a change yet.
"In the future, if Joe decides on something like that, I'm sure Joe will talk to me," Iwamura said. "If Joe tells me he wants me to play another position, I'm open to doing what's best for the team."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.