Is Ben Zobrist's best position second base, or is it right field? Could he be better if he played only one position to max his potential?
-- Roberto G., Tampa, Fla.
I've asked Zobrist and Joe Maddon that question on several occasions, and the answer always comes back the same: He's perfectly comfortable moving around the field and actually enjoys the variety. Maddon does not worry about the change in positions affecting Zobrist's performance because of his professionalism and work ethic. Now, having said that, I, too, wonder if Zobrist were to settle into one position whether his contributions to the team would be even greater. Perhaps we'll find out this season. I fully expect Zobrist to be the Rays' starting second baseman. I think the Rays will also keep an extra player to relieve Zobrist of his duties as the backup shortstop. That way he can get a day off from time to time, and it doesn't restrict the moves Maddon makes during the game. Many times in the past, Maddon has had to keep Zobrist in the game because he could not afford to burn his backup shortstop in the event the starter, Jason Bartlett, got injured.
As free agents and contracts are on everyone's mind, I am also wondering how our exciting farm system is looking. How are Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings and Sean Rodriguez developing? Do you think they will make an appearance in the Major Leagues in 2010? Who else should we keep an eye on?
-- Chris M., St. Petersburg
From all indications, the Rays' farm system is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing by producing prospects to play in the Major Leagues. Four of the five projected starters in the rotation will be from the Rays' farm system; the third baseman, left fielder and center fielder are all homegrown; and the shortstop and the other starting pitcher came to the team as the result of a trade involving one of the Rays' top players, who came up through their system. So, again, the farm system is doing what it is supposed to be doing. As for Hellickson, Joyce, Jennings and Rodriguez, I expect Joyce to be close to a lock for a position in a right-field platoon with Gabe Kapler, and Rodriguez will compete with Reid Brignac -- another homegrown player -- to be the backup second baseman and shortstop. Hellickson and Jennings would likely be wearing Rays uniforms if we went back five years to when the team wasn't competitive, but now there is no reason to rush either. That should pay off in the long run. If there are no injuries at the Major League level, I would expect to see both later in the season.
What are the Rays going to do when Tim Beckham is ready for the Major Leagues? Because we have Bartlett, Evan Longoria, and Zobrist in the infield, where is he going to play?
-- Josciel V., Tampa
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First, let's keep in mind Beckham does not turn 20 until January. According to a recent conversation I had with farm director Mitch Lukevics, Beckham, who was the top pick of the 2008 Draft, is doing well. He has great athletic skills, a nice aptitude for the game, and he works hard. Having said all of that, Beckham is still a long way away from the Major Leagues. Chances are he will begin the season at Class A Charlotte of the Florida State League, which is a really competitive league, particularly for someone his age. He still plays shortstop, and the Rays will try to keep him there as long as he continues to show that shortstop should be his position in the Major Leagues. But that journey has yet to be made. Based on his athletic skills, Beckham could easily transition to another position some day if shortstop doesn't work out. So for right now, you don't know if Beckham will be a shortstop by the time he arrives in the Major Leagues, and you don't know who will be the Rays' shortstop if and when Beckham arrives to the Major Leagues. Those kinds of problems normally take care of themselves.
What do you think about the acquisition of Rafael Soriano? Is he the answer for improving the bullpen?
-- John S., Tampa
Who knows if Soriano is the answer, but you've got to say he's a good start. Rays fans should view the Soriano deal in a positive light on several levels. First, Andrew Friedman did some nice wheeling and dealing to trade Akinori Iwamura to the Pirates for right-hander Jesse Chavez. By doing so the Rays avoided giving Iwamura a large salary bump, and they did not have to pay the buyout for not renewing his option. So they basically acquired Soriano for Iwamura. While many Rays fans liked Iwamura, the Rays have plenty of candidates for second base, and they really needed a closer. Second, Soriano will be the guy to pitch the ninth inning, no questions asked, which means everyone in the bullpen moves down a notch in the pecking order. The bullpen roles should be well-defined this season as opposed to the match-up bullpen that had mixed results in 2009. Finally, by acquiring Soriano and signing him for $7.25 million, the team's ownership seems to be saying "bring it on" for the upcoming season. The team wants to win and now.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.