Doubt over role won't distract Brignac
Starting in Minors or backing up for Rays, infielder content
TAMPA, Fla. -- Reid Brignac is in Rays camp, ready to compete for a roster spot.
The trade of Akinori Iwamura to the Pirates last November opened up some interesting possibilities for the Rays at second base and for the utility role. The most likely of those scenarios will see Ben Zobrist used at second base and right field, but the club will need a second baseman for the days when Zobrist plays right. Tampa Bay will also need a backup shortstop, since Zobrist will likely pass on those duties. Thus, Brignac and Sean Rodriguez are the top candidates to fill that role, with Elliot Johnson being the dark horse in the race.
Brignac, 24, appears ready to become a Major Leaguer, and he finally feels as if he belongs.
"Now that I've been given the opportunity to play and I've had some success, I feel like I'm capable of being an everyday guy and playing," Brignac said. "I just want to keep working at it and see what happens."
Rays manager Joe Maddon has been able to observe Brignac's progression over the years. During that period, Maddon has come to believe in Brignac's abilities as a shortstop. Now, he wants to get a better idea about what Brignac can do at second base.
"For right now, the biggest thing for me is that you've seen him at shortstop a lot," Maddon said. "I saw him last year, and I'm really comfortable with him at shortstop. I want him to get more work in and feel more comfortable at second base."
Maddon has also credited Brignac for improvements he has made on offense. Brignac's first callup to the Major Leagues came in 2008, and he went hitless in 10 at-bats. Brignac had more than a cup of coffee in the Majors last season and showed vast improvements.
Last May 22, Brignac collected his first Major League hit against the Marlins in Miami; three days later at Cleveland, the rookie collected his first Major League RBI. On June 12 against the Nationals, he recorded his first career stolen base.
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But it wasn't until his third stint with the Rays during the 2009 season that Brignac really seemed to get comfortable, and the results showed, particularly on Sept. 14 against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
Tampa Bay carried an 11-game losing streak into the contest and gave Brignac a rare chance to start at shortstop, with starter Jason Bartlett serving as the designated hitter that night. Brignac took advantage of the opportunity with a 4-for-4 performance that included his first Major League home run, a single, two doubles and a stellar play in the sixth inning, when he went to the hole to rob Melvin Mora of a hit.
Brignac ripped his second double down the right-field line, where it initially appeared he had a chance for a triple that would have earned him the distinction as the first player in team history to hit for the cycle. On Oct. 2 against the Yankees, B.J. Upton achieved the feat.
Brignac finished last season with a .278 average, one home run and six RBIs in 31 games.
"I felt a lot more comfortable last year," Brignac said. "I got to play every day in May for three weeks. That time period really settled me in. Playing every day, I knew I was going to be in the lineup. I didn't have to worry about anything like that, so I could just go out and play. I could take care of my business and play hard, and things worked out."
Already this spring, Brignac has picked up where he left off. Maddon complimented the infielder's work during the Rays' 6-5 win over the Orioles on Thursday, when the left-handed-hitting Brignac singled up the middle with two outs off left-hander Mark Hendrickson, driving in a run.
"I was looking at the quality of the at-bat there," Maddon said. "We've been working on some things specifically with Reid, and he took it right into the game."
Brignac feels as though he's gaining confidence every day at second base, to the point that he's feeling comfortable. As far as the competition he's engaged in this spring, Brignac said he can't really dwell on the circumstances.
"All I can focus on is my task at hand every day," Brignac said. "Come here. Get prepared, work. Whatever happens on the field stays on the field. The decision they make is based on our performance, so I can only control what I can control."
Brignac still has Minor League options, which means Tampa Bay can still send the infielder back to Triple-A Durham without him needing to clear waivers. Given the fact that the club has a solid starting shortstop in Bartlett, the question is out there -- would they rather have a quality shortstop starting at Triple-A, seasoning and getting ready to play at the drop of a hat if Bartlett got injured? Or would they rather employ him as the backup shortstop and second baseman at the Major League level? If he's in the Major Leagues, Brignac would not play every day.
It's a tough question the Rays must answer, but Brignac knows his preference.
"To me, it's being on this team," Brignac said. "It's helping this team win and getting back to the playoffs with this group of guys that I know and I've been playing with for several years now."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.