Rays can experiment at second, right
With Zobrist an option at both, competition will be healthy
ST. PETERSBURG -- Never in the history of the Rays has the team gone to Spring Training with so few questions to be answered.
And if everybody remains healthy, that's the way it's going to remain with the exception of second base and right field, which are the only positions that aren't totally locked down.
Zobrist played so well in 2009 that the writers who cover the Rays voted him the team MVP. He will be in the lineup every day, but there is still a little bit of a reluctance to pencil him in at one position, given his flexibility. Zobrist can play all of the outfield and infield positions, and he enjoys playing all of them.
Other than second base, the most obvious position Zobrist might play is right field, and the possibility is certainly alive that he will flip back and forth between the two positions. Manager Joe Maddon is not convinced that he must use Zobrist at one position only, because he knows that Zobrist is not discontent in his situation.
"This is a different kind of guy," Maddon said. "He loves to play, he wants to and he likes playing for us. He's really a unique young man."
What happens with Zobrist can dictate what might happen with the other players in the mix for infield and outfield jobs. For example, if the Rays aren't convinced that they want Joyce platooning, they might send him back down to Triple-A Durham, where he can play every day and get more experience.
Kapler should see most of the action in right when a left-hander starts, and the switch-hitting Zobrist could play right against right-handers. That scenario makes the competition between Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac more important because the team would need a second baseman on the days that Zobrist played right field.
Rodriguez and Brignac's competition will likely be one of the best battles in camp because of what's at stake. If Zobrist flip-flops positions, either Rodriguez or Brignac would start on days when Zobrist is playing right field -- in theory -- against right-handers. So the question must be asked: Under that scenario, would Brignac have the best chance to win the job because he hits left-handed and the second base job would need to be filled on days when a right-hander starts?
That could factor into the decision, because Rodriguez bats right-handed, but it won't likely be the major deciding factor on who makes the team, which appears to be an either-or situation. Because Zobrist will be in the lineup every day, the Rays would like him to relinquish his duties as the team's backup shortstop. Thus, it's likely that if the competition between Brignac and Rodriguez is close, it will come down to the guy who plays shortstop the best.
Maddon speaks with high regard for Rodriguez and Brignac.
"We have nice different options," Maddon said. "Sean Rodriguez is capable of playing many different positions and has some power. This guy has got some legitimate serious power, and he's a great makeup guy.
"Reid Brignac -- you saw him at the end of last year -- his hitting definitely had improved. I do like him fielding a ground ball as much as any American League infielder right now, the way he picks it up, he doesn't pat, he likes to take extra steps, he just throws it accurately to the first baseman. Reid Brignac, technically as a shortstop, picking up a ground ball, does it as well as anybody, and then his hitting came along, and you're talking also about a real high-end makeup guy."
Another byproduct of Zobrist flip-flopping would be the opening for another outfielder on the roster. The most likely candidates to fill such a spot would be Desmond Jennings, Fernando Perez or Justin Ruggiano, a solid group of candidates who will also compete for time in right field regardless of whether Zobrist plays some right field or not.
Unless something extraordinary happens this spring, Jennings will begin the season at Durham. Meanwhile, the speedy Perez would provide a quality late-inning weapon for defense and on the base paths as a pinch runner. Ruggiano is an all-around outfielder who showed his rugged side with the Rays in 2008 when he chased down fly balls with little regard for his body.
In the event Zobrist does settle into one position, there will be one final scenario to look for this spring: Maddon trying to develop another "super utility" player, which he believes to be an invaluable player to have on the roster.
"I think [super utility players are] undervalued," Maddon said, "and the value is that for me, when you need to carry more pitchers, you can carry the extra pitcher comfortably by having that one real super U kind of a guy. ... When you have a guy like that, that can move all over the field during the course of a game, as you're managing that game, it really lightens the load a bit, because if you want to do something, this guy can do so many things, he really makes a lot of decisions easier for you."
If Maddon tries to develop another super utility player, Rodriguez, Brignac and Elliot Johnson, who is extremely athletic, could become that player.
"I totally believe in [trying to develop a super U player], yeah," Maddon said. "To this point, we've had Elliott Johnson in the Minor Leagues. Elliott has been that kind of player.
"Sean has played the outfield and plays it well. He's got a fine arm. This guy throws really well. Not a burner, but he runs really well, so he has that edge in regards to playing the outfield a bit. Reid, as of right now, we're still studying Reid primarily only as an infielder."
For the most part, the focus of camp this spring will simply be to get ready for the season, but the few remaining open jobs will indeed bring some intriguing competition.
"We've just got to figure it out, try to figure it out as well as we possibly can," Maddon said. "When you think about it, it's kind of fun to think about."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.