Except for the lack of fannies in their seats and dollars in their coffers, the Tampa Bay Rays are the darlings of baseball. The front office is continually feted and they sport the current American League Manager of the Year in their dugout. The Bay Rays are a talented team with the kind of young pitching that can again push them to battle for the AL East title. But, they are not without question marks. They do not yet know who will play first base or which bat will be the designated hitter. But perhaps their biggest question mark heading into the spring is who they will employ at shortstop.
Shortstop was a disaster last year. As a team, the shortstops did perform a tick above league average in the field, but at the plate, it was a wasteland. In 596 total plate appearances, the Bay Rays' shortstops threw up this amazing slash line: .193/.256/.282. They combined to strike out 147 times and walked only 35 times. They hit only 26 extra base hits all season. Now, it's not like the majors are brimming with great hitting shortstops. Major League shortstops combined for a total slash line of .263/.317/.380, which is pretty pathetic. But those league numbers sure look a whole lot better than what the Rays did in 2011.
According to the depth chart, the same three candidates to play the position in 2011 are still in place: Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez (who is on the depth chart for every position including KP duty). Out of those three, who should get the job? In other words, who has the best chance to succeed? Let's look at them one by one.
Reid Brignac: This Fan has always liked Brignac. And last year about this time, this Fan pushed for Reid Brignac to be given the job to play for 155 games. And the Rays did just that to start the season. Brignac was pretty much the regular shortstop until mid-May. By May 21, Brignac was sitting on a slash line of .170/.210/.180. Ugh! Things couldn't get any worse than that. His playing time was limited after and he never recovered. He ended the season at, .193/.227/.221. Like many of the Bay Rays, his troubles were magnified at home. He actually hit .286 on the road but only .153 at home.
While Brignac's defense remained solid and while he has the most range of any of the candidates, there is certainly a question of if he will ever hit big league pitching. Brignac was the 39th highest rated prospect by Baseball America in 2008 and he's still only 25 years old. But he has little discipline at the plate, strikes out nearly 25 percent of his at bats and has lost any pop he showed in his bat in the minor leagues.
There are a couple of iffy positive signs for Brignac. For one, his line drive percentage was at 22.5 percent and sits at 21.1 for his career. When he hit line drives, good things happened. But when he hit grounders and fly balls, nothing ever fell in. His absurdly low .254 BABIP is surely a factor in that when his hit trajectory was on the ground or in the air, he went a combined 18 for 139 at the plate. That's either pathetic contact or terrible luck.
Elliot Johnson: Johnson was inserted after the Bay Rays could no longer handle Brignac's daily struggles. And by the end of June, Johnson was holding his own at the plate. He wasn't spectacular, but his slash line on May 23, 2011 was, .258/.306/.409. Compared to Brignac's numbers, that was great. But he faded, and by August 11, 2011, was down to batting .179. He never fully recovered either and ended the season with a slash line of, .194/.257/.338.
Johnson did play excellent defense according to all fielding metrics. That's a bit of a surprise as he was never considered that great a fielding shortstop in the minors. His entire minor league career is uninspiring. He never made a top prospect list and has never projected to be anything more than a role player.
Sean Rodriguez: Rodriguez became the Rays' shortstop by default after Brignac and Johnson failed to produce. He ended up playing sixty games at the position. Though shortstop was Rodriguez's natural position in the minors, he's not quite the fielder there as the other two. He's a league average shortstop with the glove who seems better suited at second base in the majors. But at least he did a few more things with his bat than the other two. While his final slash line of, .223/.323/.357 won't thrill any analyst, it was a darn sight better than the other two. The one area of concern is that the right-handed bat of Rodriguez seemed totally ineffective against right-handed pitching. His splits that way showed an OPS difference of almost 300 points.
Sean Rodriguez showed consistent power in the minors and his hitting there blows the other two out of the water as far as what he could potentially hit in the majors. While he isn't uber-selective at the plate, he has more discipline than the other two. The feeling here is that of the three, Rodriguez can be a consistent force in the majors on offense. But realistically, you'd prefer to see him at second permanently with Zobrist in right.
Others: The Rays' Triple A shortstop is the journeyman, Rey Olmedo, who at the age of 30 doesn't appear to be much more than minor league filler. Tim Beckham is a highly touted prospect who did well at Double A but regressed a bit once he hit Triple A last season. He's probably another year away.
Conclusions: The lack of Brignac and Rodriguez (and even Upton to a degree) to develop as hitters in the majors thus far leads to questions of how good their hitting instructions are at the major league level. That may not be fair, but you would think one of these guys would hit as well in the majors as they did in the minors. Well, okay, there is always Zobrist, but still. This Fan doesn't personally see Elliot Johnson as an answer. So unless Brignac can show some life in Spring Training, the Rays might be forced to install Sean Rodriguez as their everyday shortstop until Tim Beckham is ready. One thing is for sure, 2012 Rays' shortstops can't possibly be as bad at the plate as 2011.