Insider: Sean Rodriguez, Rays’ 2012 Shortstop?

A key focus of the Tampa Bay Rays’ offseason will be upgrading the lineup that came up one run short too often in 2011. One of the positions under the microscope will be shortstop. Following the departure of Jason Bartlett in the winter, Reid Brignac was given a chance to prove himself as the team’s primary shortstop.

Although Brignac has all the tools to succeed defensively, his offense has been lackluster to say the least. The 25-year-old hit just .193/.227/.221 in 264 plate appearances in 2011. After showing good power for the position in 2010, he managed just five extra-base hits in 92 games this past season. He had difficulty laying off pitches outside of the strike zone which led to too many empty hacks.

In the summer, the team sent Brignac to Triple-A in an attempt to re-tool his swing. Before that, they tried platooning him at shortstop with switch-hitting, utility infielder Elliot Johnson. Johnson showed a bit more power than Brignac, but little else. In just under 200 plate appearances this season, he hit .194/.257/.338. He struck out nearly one-third of the time, and was often asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt instead of swinging a bat. In the second half of the season, Johnson made just 12 starts.

With no alternatives at the upper-levels of the minor leagues, the Rays turned to one-time, super-substitute Sean Rodriguez. Primarily a shortstop in the minor leagues, Rodriguez played all over the field for the Rays in 2010. In fact, he became just the 36th player in major-league history to amass 300 plate appearances in a season in which he started at seven different positions. He began the 2011 season platooning with Ben Zobrist at second base before getting a chance to return to shortstop.

Rodriguez played 60 games at shortstop – including 49 starts. A dynamic defender at second base, he made nine errors after shifting across the bag. Meanwhile, six of those errors were throwing which suggests his ability to actually field the position was adequate. Where he appeared to struggle most was getting his feet set and mechanics.

The good news is footwork and throwing are things Rodriguez could become more comfortable with more repetition. Despite the flaws, he showed athletism, range, and a strong enough arm for the position. He also adjusted well to handing throws and making turns on double plays. His ceiling is probably that of an average defensive shortstop which is better than a good number of players starting regularly there.

Although the bar was not set very high, Rodriguez numbers on offense were a slight upgrade over Brignac and Johnson. Overall, he hit .223/.323/.357 in 436 plate appearances. Granted, that was slightly below league average; however, he showed late improvement in two key areas: plate discipline and against right-handed pitching.

Rodriguez has been somewhat of a free swinger dating back to his days in the minors. In 1030 major-league plate appearances, he has struck out 246 times (24%). In 2011, he continued to strike out at an above-average rate (20%), yet showed progress. He increased the amount of contact he made – especially on pitches in the strike zone – while cutting down the number of swings and misses.

As Rodriguez’s playing time increased so did his discipline. Though still aggressive at the plate, his walk rate improved in each month of the season, culminating in a 9.6% walk rate in the month September. He struck out just 12% of the time in final month of the season – his lowest monthly rate since joining the Rays.

Rodriguez mashes left-handed pitching; not uncommon for a right-handed hitter. His career OPS vs. southpaws is a healthy .782. This season, he hit lefties to the tune of .273/.389/.475 in 167 plate appearances. Meanwhile, he has been almost useless against right-handed pitchers. For his career, he is a .212 hitter with an OPS of .615 against like-handed creatures. In the early portion of the 2011 season – April to June – Rodriguez hit .167/.245/.292 in 96 at-bats against righties.

After amassing just 53 total plate appearances in June, Rodriguez became an everyday player in the second half. This meant playing against both left and right-handers. There have been studies conducted suggesting players with extreme platoon splits will see those numbers regress with a larger sample size. In a small sample size, Rodriguez appears to be trending in that direction.

Despite a slash line of .210/.304/.283 from July to September against right-handed pitchers, Rodriguez did show improvement. In the final two months of the season, he earned a .347 on-base percentage against righties in 94 plate appearances. The OBP is propped up by six (!) hit by pitches; however, taking one for the team is a skill (see Craig Biggio), and he also earned his way on base in a more conventional way with nine walks. Even if he never hits well against right-handers, getting on base by any means will go along way in his ability to play everyday.

Undoubtedly, the Rays will explore all options – both internal and external – when looking for next season’s primary shortstop. Potential Boston Red Sox free agent Marco Scutaro would be a definite upgrade, but upgrading typically costs money. Considering Rodriguez’s late season improvements at the plate, as well as an offseason to prepare for the position defensively, the Rays may consider staying in house.

Rodriguez also the support of a key member in the organization. When speaking about the 26-year-old infielder, Rays’ Manager Joe Maddon said “Sean Rodriguez is a baseball player.” Expanding on the obvious, Maddon added “He (Rodriguez) is a throwback in every sense of the word. He could have played in any decade, any era. He’s kind of unique with today’s baseball player.” “You need him” said Maddon.

But do they need him at shortstop? I think it is worth a shot.