PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Ben Zobrist is the "Father of Utility" for the way he popularized playing many different positions, a role that has become a key component of the Rays' organization.
Zobrist came up with the team in 2006 after Tampa Bay acquired him in a trade with the Astros. Originally he played shortstop for the Rays, but he didn't really become a major contributor to the team until 2008,when he split time between the Rays and the Minor Leagues and proved that he could hit and be plugged into multiple positions. Zobrist has since thrived, prompting the Rays to add other players to the roster who could play multiple positions.
This spring the roster is full of guys with many gloves in their lockers, such as Sean Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe, Jayson Nix, Cole Figueroa, Ray Olmedo, Vince Belnome and Wilson Betemit, which is as much a compliment to Zobrist's success as a utility player as it is a nod to the Rays' ideology that led to the creation of his role.
Zobrist noted that he doesn't really think about being the guy who got the utility ball rolling for the Rays.
"It's just kind of become who I am as a player," Zobrist said. "If they started saying, 'This is all you can do,' or, 'We only want you to do this now,' I think I would feel kind a little like they're taking something away from me."
Joe Maddon expressed a desire to develop some sort of utility player on the team early in his tenure as the Rays' manager. He'd witnessed the effectiveness of Chone Figgins when both were with the Angels, and he understood what having such a player could mean to a roster.
Zobrist allowed that he could appreciate how far the utility role has come at the Major League level.
"It's interesting that for so long, that it was looked at as almost a negative thing," Zobrist said. "Like you can't really be a starter if you're a utility guy. But now it's evolved to where it's a lot more of a tool for the manager or the coaching staff to move you around. As far as people seeing me as one of the first guys to do that, I think it's pretty cool. But if you're going to call me the 'Father of Utility,' I'm going to start feeling old."
Regardless of whether or not Zobrist established the utility role for the Rays, he believes it would have developed anyway.
"I think eventually, it still would have happened," Zobrist said. "It's just the nature of the way the game is evolving. You know, they want the guys on the bench to be able to do more. It gives the manager more flexibility. He's able to do more things at the end of the game.
"With the way the pitching has evolved, you have to have several different kinds of options coming off the bench at the end of the game. It makes it a little trickier for the manager, but having a guy or two like that, who can move around, obviously makes those decisions a little easier."
Maddon also believes a utility man would eventually have come along for the Rays.
"We still would have looked for it," Maddon said. "The thing really worked out for Ben; it really enhanced his career. At that time when he was really establishing himself, we couldn't see him playing just one position every day. And by him having those kinds of abilities, it permitted you to slot him in [at different positions], and when you slot him in, then all of a sudden he's comfortable. You start seeing balls land in the stands, and he becomes an everyday baseball player."
The utility role seemed destined to evolve given the climate of the game when Maddon took the reins of the Rays in 2006, as if the perfect storm had occurred.
"It kind of fit into our schematic pretty well," Maddon said. "I always thought that those kinds of guys expand a roster. ... That really makes a difference when you're putting together a roster. It permits so many different things daily, if somebody were to get hurt. It permits so many things [with a] game in progress. It's a great advantage to have, especially a guy of [Zobrist's] caliber."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.