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Bartlett's defense has made Rays a winner in big trade

Once, it was easy to be a skeptic. And I was.

To wonder if the Rays hadn't erred by trading Delmon Young so quickly. And I did.

Young, after all, was an emerging star. A No. 1 pick coming off a 93-RBI season at age 22. Maybe Matt Garza had potential and maybe Jason Bartlett was an upgrade, but did the Rays really get enough in return?

Forty-four games later, I would now say yes.

I might even say I would trade Young for Bartlett, straight up.

"We wouldn't be where we are today," manager Joe Maddon said, "if we didn't have Jason Bartlett at shortstop."

This doesn't mean Bartlett is a greater talent than Young. If you ask which of the two has the better chance of making an All-Star team, the answer is Young. If you ask which of the two has a better chance of playing 15 seasons or more in the big leagues, the answer is Young.

But if you ask which player would be more valuable to the Rays today, the answer is Bartlett.

The change in Tampa Bay's defense this season has been stunning, and you can attribute much of the improvement to Bartlett. He has brought calm to the infield and confidence to a pitching staff.

It is not simply that he is avoiding errors — which would have been an upgrade by itself — but Bartlett is getting to balls that, in years past, have routinely scooted through the infield for singles.

Based on figures from STATS Inc., Tampa Bay had the worst defensive shortstops in the American League last season. The Rays' zone rating — which measures a player's efficiency on balls hit in his vicinity — was the second worst for any team in the AL in the past 20 years.

And Bartlett's zone rating?

Last week, he was third in the American League.

"He is making the routine plays, and then some more on top of that," Rays third-base coach Tom Foley said. "He's got the knowledge, he's got the athleticism. We've seen multiple plays this year with the bare hand over the mound, or turning double plays on balls that you weren't even sure he could get to."

When the trade was made in November, the focus was on Garza's addition to the rotation. And that is still a major component, considering the cost of starting pitching and Garza's contract status.

But having watched the Rays through the first quarter of the season, it is not a stretch to say Bartlett has had a much greater impact on their ascent in the American League East standings.

The Rays have gone from a poor fielding team to one of the best defensive lineups in the league. Rookie Evan Longoria has had an impact at third base. Aki Iwamura has been an upgrade at second base. B.J. Upton has grown as a centerfielder, and catcher Dioner Navarro has shown improvement.

Yet none has been as revelatory as Bartlett. The Rays had gone so long without quality defense at shortstop, you had forgotten what it means to have a player routinely go into the hole to take away a hit.

"He's been amazing. We're turning double plays we never would have made last year," pitcher James Shields said. "It doesn't necessarily change the way you pitch because you need to stick to what you're trying to do, but you feel a lot better on the mound when you have the kind of defense behind you that we've had this year."

It helps that Young is off to a slow start in Minnesota, but that's not likely to last. When the Rays agreed to make this deal they knew they were taking less offense in the bargain.

The rationale was that it was easier to replace offensive numbers in the outfield than to find a legitimate glove at shortstop. And, it turns out, executive VP Andrew Friedman was right.

Rays rightfielders had a .314 on-base percentage and a .421 slugging percentage last season. Going into Sunday's game, the rightfielders had a .339 on-base percentage and a .420 slugging percentage.

In other words, there hasn't been much difference between Young's production last season and what the Rays have gotten from Eric Hinske, Gabe Gross and Jonny Gomes in rightfield the past seven weeks.

Will it always be this way? Probably not. Young, despite his slow start, still has enormous potential as a hitter, as long as he develops a more strategic approach to hitting.

There is still a good chance, years down the road, the Rays will have trader's remorse. Young is an immensely arrogant and unlikable young man, and it is easy to dismiss his accomplishments now that he has left town.

Still, you do not often see a player drive in his 90th run of the season a few days after his 22nd birthday. And no player with that many RBIs at that age has ever been traded a couple of months later.

So, yes, it is possible the Twins may one day claim victory in the trade.

But, based on what the Rays needed, Friedman's trade looks as if it was the right move at the right time.

Just check the standings.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Bartlett's defense has made Rays a winner in big trade 05/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 8:12am]

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