Zobrist making most of opportunity
Unheralded utility man carving niche in right field for Rays
SEATTLE -- Ben Zobrist made his seventh start of the season in right field Thursday against the Mariners, prompting a reporter to ask Joe Maddon if, in essence, Zobrist is now the everyday right fielder.
The Rays manager carefully considered the question before answering, "No."
"It's just, right now, he's swinging the bat well," Maddon said. "And I thought he had some really good at-bats [Wednesday]. Not even just the hits. The walks, good quality at-bats; I liked the idea that he hit the ball hard to left-center the other night. That's something that we've talked about all spring. He's done a nice job in the outfield. He's running the bases aggressively. He's playing a good brand of baseball right now."
Ironically, one of the Rays' top priorities of this past offseason was finding an everyday right fielder before they opted to go with a platoon by signing right-handed-hitting Gabe Kapler to go along with left-handed-hitting Gabe Gross. And just think, they had a switch-hitter on the bench in Zobrist, who might just win the full-time right-field job at some point.
Zobrist entered Thursday's action boasting the offensive numbers of a corner outfielder, with a .312 batting average, three home runs and nine RBIs.
"You never know," Maddon said. "I've thought about those things. And I've thought about that specifically. But we're not ready to go there. Gabe [Gross] is going to get back out there. Of course, Gabe Kapler is going to get back out there."
Maddon still believes Zobrist is more valuable to the team as a utility player right now. In addition to playing the outfield, he's the backup shortstop and second baseman. He never saw Zobrist's offensive improvements coming or his playing the outfield.
"We saw him primarily as a shortstop," Maddon said. "We thought he might be the everyday shortstop at some point, but we never imagined him in the outfield. So he's another guy who has re-invented himself. I think he's just living with a lot of confidence right now. He just believes in himself. He just feels really good about his game."
Offensively, the big change in Zobrist, in a nutshell, has been going up to the plate and swinging like someone who stands 6-foot-3, 200 pounds should, rather than using the contact style he once employed. Despite splitting time between Triple-A Durham and the Rays in 2008, Zobrist managed to hit an eye-opening 12 home runs using his new style of hitting.
"[Hitting coach Steve Henderson] was on him from Day 1, because he's a big guy who was hitting like a little guy," Maddon said. "I know from Day 1, Henderson was trying to get him to drive the ball with a little more authority. And at some point it probably sank home with him. I know last year when he went back out [to Durham], he still wasn't Zorilla. He went back to the Minor Leagues as Ben Zobrist and comes back as Zorilla."
Zobrist remembered Henderson working with him.
"Well, this organization has been great since I first got here," Zobrist said. "The first time Hendu saw me swing he kept trying to tell me to let it go, let it go a little bit, because I was just feeling for the ball. It kind of clicked last year. I struck out more. But sometimes you can give those up for the times you may get a blast here and there."
Zobrist said his mentality changed to where he became more aggressive at the plate, too.
"I think you have to be aggressive with the pitchers in this league," Zobrist said. "Everybody's a great player in this league. Sometimes I could sit back in the Minor Leagues and let a pitch go by here and there and take more pitches. But you can't really do that up here. Because these guys are going to put you away quick if you're not ready for that first or second pitch."
Zobrist hasn't spent too much time fretting about becoming the regular right fielder.
"It's just something that has kind of developed and really, it's just a matter of just trying to help the team any way I can," Zobrist said. "I think if you take that kind of attitude and the coaching staff sees that, and you're playing well at the time. Then they're going to stick you in there because they're comfortable with you. I really feel grateful for the opportunity, wherever they stick me."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.