ST. PETERSBURG -- Speculating on the batting order provides food for thought during the Hot Stove season.
Where the Rays are concerned, there are a number of possibilities based on the flexible nature of the players in their lineup. Manager Joe Maddon recently spoke about some of those possibilities while reflecting on what Tampa Bay's 2010 lineup might look like.
Balance in the lineup will be important.
"You've got to be able to score runs up and down the whole order," Maddon said. "I'm not there yet in regards to pinpointing where people are going to hit."
The Rays scored a team-record 803 runs in 2009, but they left a lot on the table, too, which Maddon attributed to the team needing a better approach with runners in scoring position and runners on third with less than two outs. Looking for that new approach, the club opted not to bring back hitting coach Steve Henderson, and it hired Derek Shelton to take his place.
Critical to the coming season's batting order will be the leadoff spot. B.J. Upton struggled in 2009 batting first before Jason Bartlett took over in the top spot and thrived. Maddon inserted Bartlett into the leadoff spot on Aug. 3 in a Monday night game against the Royals at Tropicana Field. For Bartlett, it was just the fifth time he'd batted leadoff all season, and the shortstop responded by going 3-for-4 with a double and a triple, two runs scored and two RBIs in Tampa Bay's 10-4 win -- against American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, who took the loss for Kansas City. Bartlett remained in the top spot for the rest of the season.
If the decision on who will be the Rays' leadoff man for 2010 were made in December, Maddon said the job would go to Bartlett.
"As of right now, I thought a little bit about that, Jason Bartlett did a tremendous job," Maddon said. "I mean, he really blossomed into a really good hitter, period, but as a leadoff guy, he seems more apt or willing to want to work the at-bat, the count.
Here's an educated guess at the Rays' lineup next season.
Matt Joyce/Gabe Kapler
Dioner Navarro/ Kelly Shoppach
"The number of pitches that he saw last year was very, very good. You remember we've talked a lot about fly balls with him, getting him out of the air more on a line. He did that. He did that to a larger degree, used the middle of the field better, opposite field better. I think that he readjusts how he thinks as a hitter when he's up at that spot, and it's very productive. He's a great baserunner. He might be our best baserunner, and he can steal a bag."
Maddon called Bartlett an "awareness guy" in that he "knows what's going on, and he brings that to the table." Despite the endorsement for Bartlett, Maddon did allow himself some wiggle room.
"Now, having said all that, I don't know that it's going to turn out that way, but as of right now, [in December], I would lean in that direction," Maddon said.
With Bartlett at leadoff, where does Upton fit in? Upton has been working diligently during the offseason with Shelton and seems excited about what he's getting accomplished. Based on the expected improvements and his finding the form that propelled the Rays through the playoffs in 2008, Upton could find himself in any number of positions in the lineup next season.
"I've thought about it a little, but not a lot," Maddon said. "You know, B.J. we've talked about. B.J. to me can hit anywhere -- one, two, three, four, five. We did put him back down at the end last year, because he was struggling so much, but projecting-wise, B. J. is a top-of-the-order hitter, and if he gets his stroke back with the power going on again, [there's] no telling where we're going to stick him."
Maddon believes the Rays "do have a thick lineup," which makes filling out the lineup card on a nightly basis a nice experience. The manager said he's leaning toward Upton hitting in the fifth or sixth spot, depending on what he does with Ben Zobrist, who finished the season hitting cleanup in the absence of injured Carlos Pena. And Maddon would like to leave the catcher toward the bottom of the order.
"Last year, we had certain guys that just had bad years," said Maddon, who noted that Upton, Pat Burrell and Dioner Navarro had their issues offensively last season.
Still, Maddon feels the trio can still produce when slotted into a lineup with Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford and a healthy Pena.
"I've always said, God bless the Yankees or the Red Sox or whatever, but I like our names," Maddon said. "I like our names a lot. We've had a lot of experience over the last couple years, and I think we've learned a lot of good lessons. I have a lot of confidence in our group, playing well and getting back to the top next year within our division. I have a lot of confidence in our group."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.