Kelly Shoppach needed help.
The 2010 season was by far the most trying of his career, and with how poorly he played in his first year with the Rays, how frustrating it was to miss two months with a knee injury and how he looked and felt, he had to do something. After an intensive winter workout regimen with a private trainer, and an extensive overhaul of his diet that included a chef preparing his meals 5½ days a week, Shoppach showed up to spring training with a noticeably better body and markedly bigger plans. "I still know there's an everyday ability that I have," he said. "And I'd just love to showcase it."
The Rays hope, at the least, that he's half right.
Shoppach was brought in last season to share the catcher's job with Dioner Navarro, but it didn't work out too well. The knee injury knocked him out from mid April until early June, and he was never really right, hitting just .196 overall, with little of the power nor much of the production against left-handed pitchers the Rays had expected.
The best thing to come out of his season, arguably, was the emergence of John Jaso, who was called up when Shoppach was hurt and became one of the season's best success stories, especially as Navarro also struggled.
Shoppach said he holds no resentment, especially since he got his first shot in the big leagues due to others' injuries, nor is he posturing for more playing time based on anything but performance.
But he is confident, at 30, he can reclaim at least his share of the job — and maybe more.
"I don't know how the playing time is going to work, but I think if I'm playing up to my capabilities, I'd play as much as we expected to play last year," he said. "And really, I played plenty last year — I played against almost every left-handed starter — I just didn't play very well.
"I'm going to get back to doing the things I can do against left-handers. I'm going to get back to that, and it's going to work. It's going to work."
With Jaso hitting only .191 against left-handers (with a .610 OPS), the Rays need Shoppach to do so. As bad as his year was, he did hit .261 and post a respectable .823 OPS against lefties. But with Jaso usually good for only three games in a row, Shoppach will have to play occasionally against righties, and that was ugly last year: a .114 average (8-for-70 with 38 strikeouts) and a .432 OPS.
"Even in a down season last year, Kelly was still very productive against lefties," executive vice president Andrew Freidman said. "That said, we strongly believe he has more in the tank against both righties and lefties and fully anticipate him having a much better season offensively."
Plus, manager Joe Maddon said, "it's up to us to put him in the right situations."
Shoppach — making $3 million this season, with a $3.2 million 2012 option — brings more than just his bat, specifically experience, game-planning and extensive prep, all benefits for a young pitching staff and Jaso. Also some leadership, evidenced last week when he took all the catchers out for a big dinner at The Perfect Caper restaurant.
His work this winter, with trainer Erick Minor at the Strength Studio in Fort Worth, Texas, is a good sign. Focusing on resistance training and nutrition (no fast food, organic meats, fresh vegetables), Shoppach dropped fat and added muscle, the net result being a firm 227 pounds that has him feeling stronger than ever. "It was all about clean living," Shoppach said. "I've never been one to brag, but I'm really proud of what I was able to accomplish in four months."
Now he's ready to take it onto the field.
"I know physically I'm going to be in better shape to help contribute, and if you're healthy and feeling good, you're going to play better," he said. "I think there's a real chance to make another run at this thing, so you do whatever you can, whether it's you being in the limelight or somebody else."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.