The Real Rays Spring Battles are in the Left Side Trenches
One of the biggest battles this Spring has not materialized out of the Bullpen situation, but has surfaced in the grass and clay just beyond the pitching mound. Infield spots once thought to be solidified by returning member of the Rays or their farm system now have a few outsiders eager to take a roster spot.
Around the diamond, the only positions that seem to have any stability long range heading into the final weeks of the Spring is the right side of the infield. We all know that third base is the kingdom of Longoria, but not until recently when Reid Brignac set foot in the clay at the shortstop position did we know just how firmly he was going to plant his feet into that surface.
Brignac has basically closed the door to anyone else trying to take his spot this Spring, bolstered by an impressive .533 Batting Average and a outstanding .667 Slugging Percentage. But some have also whispered it has only been 6 games, and “Briggy Baseball” should not be handed the keys yet to the Rays shortstop job. But we forget this is the spot Brignac has been groomed for since he hit the Rays farm system, and his exuberance and stellar defensive play has only solidified that thinking.
So that leave the Second Base and First base slots where the competition might not be fierce for a starting nod, but also for that coveted “jack of all trades” every teams needs during the season. And here is where the competition really heats up.
Sure Sean Rodriguez, who might be anointed the Rays Second Baseman by the end of Spring camp has done nothing to diminish his claim to the spot, but Elliot Johnson and Felix Lopez will definitely get their own chances to rattle the cages a few times before it is all said and done this Spring.
Rodriguez has stayed in his usual Rays Spring zone hitting .444 in his limited appearances, but has also been m ore than adequate with stellar defense. Johnson has been the one guy you might have been rooting for to finally get his chance to again grace the Rays roster. Most might not remember his short stint with the Rays in 2008, but the Rays Triple-A fixture is more than apt to finally plant his feet firmly in the clay of the Trop.
But Johnson has not materialized in 2011 so far like he has dominated in recent years, In 2011, he has appeared in 6 games going 0-10 with a .230 OBP. Not the type of numbers you want from someone finally getting a chance to gain a Opening Day slot. His 2011 number pale in comparison to his 2009 Spring that boasted a .981 OPS to go along with a .309 average with 3 HR and 7 RBIs. Johnson will need to hit a massive streak in the coming weeks to stave off the advances of Lopez.
Here is where it gets tricky. Lopez has the ability and the pedigree to take the utility job and possibly get some extended play in the infield for the Rays in 2011. And if his first few weeks of the Spring are any indication, Lopez might just end Johnson’s chances in the next week or two just by staying consistent.
Lopez has put up a .429 in 12 games including a tie with catcher Robinson Chirinos for the second highest hit total (9 hits) on the Rays this Spring. Combine that with Lopez getting some extensive time at Third Base, possibly for a buffer to give Longoria a chance to DH a bit more in 2011. Lopez currently has done everything right for the Rays, including a perfect 1.000 Fielding Percentage in his 28 innings of work.
Right now Lopez is firmly in the driver’s seat to taking the Rays utility position, but Johnson will definitely have something say about it before the March 31st Spring finale in Tropicana Field. But just to the left of the Utility man war might be one of the most interesting fight this Spring. First Base was a sore spot for the Rays with the departure of the offense and defense of Carlos Pena to the Chicago Cubs. Most thought Ben Zobrist might get a bevy of the chances this Spring to contend for that spot, but it has been a two horse race so far with slugger Dan Johnson showing his glove is also pretty good.
Johnson has started out this Spring with a mission to show he has the defensive chop to take the everyday 1B spot for the Rays, even with a defensive specialist like veteran Casey Kotchman on his heels. Defensively it has been a neck and neck race here with each showing brilliance and a knack for being in the right place this Spring.
Even though Kotchman has had the only error this Spring between the two, their innings of work at First suggests that Johnson who has logged 42 innings at First this Spring might have a slight edge on the defensive side. Even though Kotchman has also appeared in 11 games and manned the bag for 51 innings, the Total chances between Johnson (39) and Kotchman (45) suggest this is definitely a two horse race with both possibly getting a roster spot.
Currently on the offensive side of the equation, it is Johnson’s starting nod to lose right now. Even though Johnson has 4 extra base hits, including 2 Hrs recently against the Phillies, his average is dipped even below the Pena line (.160). That might be a concern for Rays Manager Joe Maddon and his staff, but Johnson also has a .222 OBP, which might show a tendency to eye the ball more at the plate than Kotchman.
Still, Kotchman right now might have the edge on offense, but it is more based on average than a slugger’s mentality. Kotchman’s .393 Batting Average combined with a .414 OBP suggests he is seeing the ball well this Spring. And with a 4 doubles this Spring, maybe Kotchman might be a great match-up for Maddon’s usual line-up maddness when he needs a guy at the plate for average instead of for power.
This brings up the idea that both could possibly make the team, but that might be stretching it a bit. With the Rays possibly carrying 12 pitchers, that leaves 13 rosters spots for the fielding side of the ball. Pencil in Longoria, Jaso, possibly Shoppach, Ramirez, Damon, Brignac, Rodriguez,Upton, Joyce, and Zobrist and possibly Justin Ruggiano or Sam Fuld fighting it out for the fifth outfielder spot .
Suddenly you have only 2 viable open Rays roster slots for the four guys currently fighting it out on the left side of the infield. The Rays do have the luxury of having Zobrist also playing outfield, which could jettison both Ruggiano and Fuld possibly to the minors or being traded. That would leave three spots (without a change in the 12-man pitching staff) with one lone player in the foursome coming up with the short straw.
If you want to see intense competition on the Rays over the next three weeks, do not look to the Bullpen, look to the left side of the infield. Four guys will be fighting for their MLB livelihoods over the next few weeks with each vaulting and falling in their secure spots as the games become fewer. Johnson and Kotchman could both gain roster spots based on their collective offense and defensive might, but the Johnson and Lopez battle is far from over……Let the real competition begin……Now!