Rodriguez, Brignac up for Rays' shortstop job

Rodriguez, Brignac up for Rays' shortstop job

Rodriguez, Brignac up for Rays' shortstop job
ST. PETERSBURG -- Looking at the Rays' shortstop situation for 2012, the immediate reaction for many fans is to dismiss the in-house candidates to fill the position and call for a trade.

Alas, making a trade doesn't appear to be an option. Instead, Sean Rodriguez or Reid Brignac -- or both -- look like the answer to who will play shortstop for Tampa Bay in 2012.

"I've talked to both of them this offseason, actually," manager Joe Maddon said this month. "What we wanted to do was have some conversations at the end of last season, but fortunately, we made the playoffs at the last moment. So I've called them both and given them both an idea of what we're thinking about going into this offseason. So it's an open competition is what it is."

Rodriguez probably has a leg up on the job, based on last season.

"I thought Sean did really well at the end of last year," Maddon said. "Sean probably exceeded our expectations with what he's going to be able to do defensively. Even on offense, I think there's a lot of room for improvement there, too. But Sean is a wonderful baseball player, and that's why we love to have him on the field."

Rodriguez started 49 games at shortstop, 41 at second base, 16 at third and three at first in 2011. He seems to be figuring out some things offensively, particularly in regard to hitting for power. Of his 83 hits, 31 were extra-base hits, including a home run he hit off Toronto's Brandon Morrow that clocked at 118.4 mph off the bat, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker website. That was the fastest speed recorded by any home run hit in the Major Leagues in 2011.

Meanwhile, Brignac kicked off the 2011 season as the Rays' starter at shortstop, but he lost the job after struggling offensively.

"Reid is one of the better young defenders, I think, at shortstop in the game," Maddon said. "Obviously he did not have the offensive year that we were looking for, so he needs to really pick up there. Again, talking to both of them, they're both aware that they'll be battling it out for that job in Spring Training."

Brignac made a team-high 76 starts at shortstop in 2011, compiling a .979 fielding percentage after committing just seven errors. Had he played enough games to qualify, he would have ranked fifth among American League shortstops in fielding percentage. So credit should go to him for not allowing his offensive struggles to interfere with his defense.

Maddon could not define what exactly would be the determining factor for one of the candidates winning the job outright during Spring Training.

"Obviously I've always talked about Reid being the better defender at shortstop and Sean being the better defender at second base," Maddon said. "I think it'll be an accumulation or watching everything to make that determination. It's not just going to be that somebody goes like 8-for-11 over a stretch in Spring Training and they've won the job. It's got to go deeper than that.

"There are certain items within Reid's game I want to see get better, also -- not just hitting -- and that would be important to see those kind of improvements, too. And with Sean, he started to show some of those improvements, talking about his at-bats in particular -- working better at-bats, not chasing pitches out of the zone, those kind of things. Best way to describe it, though, it's going to be watching everything, so it's not just about hits. I never want to make it just about hits."

At this point, Maddon is not sure whether he even wants one or the other to emerge as the starter.

"OK, specifically in my mind, somebody would win it outright, but as Spring Training plays out, and then you see what your utility situation is going to look like and how you feel about that, that may impact that decision somehow," Maddon said. "I don't know."

Maddon did acknowledge that the Rays' offensive numbers at the position in 2011 were dismal, but given the club's way of thinking, being able to swing the bat is not always the most important factor for a player to get his name in the starting lineup.

"I'll tell you what," Maddon said. "I don't want us to improve our offense at the sake of lessening or pitching to our defense. That's who we are. Our template indicates if we play great defense and pitch well, we're going to win around 90 some games and have a shot at the playoffs.

"Now if we don't pitch well or play defense like that and hit, I don't know, 15 or 20 more home runs, I don't know if we're going to be able to prevent enough runs to overcome that slight uptick in the offense. I would much rather that we be identified and continue to nurture being this defensive team with great pitching. That, to me, is the one that permits us to do what we did last year."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.