Inside The Rays Spring Training: Infield

In part one of his spring training preview, Insider Tommy Rancel takes a look at the Tampa Bay Rays’ position players.

Five was the magic number for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. When the team scored five or more runs, they emerged victorious 90% of the time. When scoring less than five runs, the team had a .318 win percentage. Although they ended the season with 91 victories, the team scored four runs or fewer an equal amount (91) of times including 15 shutouts. The team ended the season in the middle of the American League pack with 4.4 runs scored per game. With this in mind, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman spent the winter searching for that extra half of a run.

Like always, Friedman was disciplined in his pursuit. He did not overspend on the open market or in a trade. Perhaps more importantly, he did not sacrifice the team’s superb defense in the process of upgrading the offense. Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon did admirable jobs as the team’s first baseman and designated hitter last season; however, new (old) first baseman Carlos Pena and DH Luke Scott provide much more offensive potential, especially in terms of power.

Let us now take a look at Pena, Scott, and the rest of the offense that will look to provide the magical five runs a night at the plate while maintaining a high level of run prevention in the field. First up, we will go around the Rays’ infield before catching up with the outfielders in the next installment of our preview.

Jose MolinaSigned in the offseason after spending two seasons in Toronto, Molina is the key piece at the revamped catcher position. After John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach failed to deliver at the plate, the Rays shifted focus in signing the defense-first Molina. Rated as the top framing catchers in baseball, he is a force behind the plate in both receiving and controlling the running game. Despite a career-year at the plate (.281/.342/.415), do not expect much on offense. His age (36), and the fact that he’s never started more than 81 games in a season, creates some concerns about durability.

Jose Lobaton – The 27-year-old figures to get his first real chance to make the big-league roster despite spending the last three seasons at the upper levels of the minor leagues. Like Molina, Lobaton has a solid defensive reputation, but up until 2011 had not shown much on offense. He performed well at Durham hitting .293/.410/.489, but had just four hits in 15 games with the Rays. Injuries have been a problem for Lobaton including a knee injury that cost him most of the 2011 season, and arm soreness that prevented him from playing winter ball.  As a switch-hitter with good defense, he could be the ying to Molina’s yang.

Robinson Chirinos – Acquired in the Matt Garza trade, Chirinos captured the attention of fans with a fantastic 2011 spring training. Unfortunately, the success did not carry over into the regular season. Chirinos initially struggled at Triple-A before rebounding in middle months of the season. Injuries at the major-league level forced the Rays to call him up in July where he hit .218/.283/.309 in 60 plate appearances before being sent back to Durham. Offensively, he showed a trained eye and the ability to make solid contact. Defensively, he was a bit of a mess with spotty footwork and a long release. Unlike Molina and Lobation – lifers behind the plate – Chirinos is still relatively new to catcher after converting from the infield in 2008. He spent most of the offseason rehabbing a broken wrist suffered while playing winter ball, but has the highest offensive upside of the top three catchers in camp.

Carlos Pena– A true three outcome player (walks, home runs, strikeouts), everyone knows what they are getting with Carlos Pena. Sure, the low batting average and high strikeouts will bother some; however, the above-average on-base percentage and potential for 50-plus extra-base hits should provide the Rays with the upgraded they were looking for at first base. Pena continues to mash right-handed pitchers (.255/.388/.504 in 2011), but struggles against fellow lefties. If he can maintain a respectable on-base percentage against southpaws, the good he does against righties should outweigh the negative. Despite creeping closer to age 35, he is still durable and will resume his role as clubhouse leader.

Ben Zobrist– One of the most underrated players in baseball, Zobrist is a star on both sides of the ball. After roaming the diamond in previous seasons, he settled into second base last season with a weekly start or two in right field. Despite the different responsibilities, he was an above-average defender at both positions. Although he did not replicate his 2009 performance at the plate, a healthier Zorilla finished tied for sixth in the AL with 72 extra-base hits in 2011. He’ll likely maintain his position as the team’s primary second baseman with some time in rightfield against left-handers. Offensively, he figures to be a key cog in Joe Maddon’s lineup with the ability to hit from both sides of the plate and a skillset that fits anywhere in the order.

Sean Rodriguez – After starting 2011 as a utility man, Rodriguez unexpectedly became the team’s starting shortstop in the second half of the season. Although he is a better defender on the other side of second base, he comes into 2012 with a chance to be the Rays’ primary shortstop. A below-average hitter overall, he crushed left-handed pitching to the tune of .273/.389/.475. He continued to struggle against right-handers (.567 OPS), but did show signs of improvement late in the season. Even with an offseason to work at the position, his ceiling is likely that of an average defensive shortstop; however, with above-average potential on offense, he could see semi-everyday playing time. With continued improvement versus righties, he is a candidate to be a breakout performer in 2012.

Reid Brignac – Finally given a chance to be the team’s primary shortstop in 2011, Reid Brignac failed to grab hold of the position. After showing decent pop as a rookie in 2010 (eight home runs in 326 plate appearances), he hit just five (5!) extra-base hits in 264 plate appearances last season. A huge hole in his swing (12.6% swinging strikes) earned him a return ticket – albeit brief – to Triple-A in the summer. Despite the abysmal 2011 season, Brignac is too young (26) and too talented of a defender to give up on. He will come into spring battling Sean Rodriguez at shortstop and could win the lion’s share of playing time if he proves to be just an average hitter at the plate. If not, one must wonder if the Rays would try to cash in on any trade value he has left while turning the position over to Rodriguez on a full-time basis.

Evan Longoria – Some may look at Longoria’s .244 batting average from a season ago and say the 26-year-old had a down season. Meanwhile, despite missing 29 games due to injury, he still belted 31 home runs and tacked on 26 doubles. In addition to the extra-base hits, he walked a career-high 14% of the time while striking out just 16%, a career-low. A superb defender at the hot corner, Longoria comes into camp a little lighter and more flexible in hopes of playing all 162 games. With oblique and foot injuries behind him, Longoria should continue to be a force on offense and defense and could get back to running a bit more (just three steals in 2011 after 15 in 2010). If he experiences some positive regression in batting average (a .239 batting average on balls in play in 2011; career.301) and comes close to playing 162 games, we will likely hear his name as an AL MVP candidate in 2012.

Jeff Keppinger – The veteran infielder signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay in January. Although he will not have the impact of Carlos Pena or Luke Scott, Keppinger should be an offensive upgrade over Elliot Johnson as a reserve infielder. He is not as good of a defender, however, his defense should be palatable in small does. His stellar career marks versus left-handed pitching (.324/.371/.481) could make him the team’s starter at second base versus southpaws (Ben Zobrist to rightfield with Matt Joyce to the bench). His high-contact rate (93% career) should make him a Joe Maddon favorite in hit-and-run situations.

Elliot Johnson– By all accounts, Johnson was a solid defensive backup in 2011. Meanwhile, he offered little on offense. Nearly 30% of his 181 plate appearance ended in a strikeout and 10 of his 31 hits did not leave the infield. He did show a little pop at times, and is a fast baserunner; however, he was gunned down seven times in 13 attempts and rarely took the extra-base. With Keppinger signed to a major-league contract, Johnson is on the outside looking in and may be subject to waivers for the second time in three seasons.

Next up in the series: Outfielders