DURHAM, N.C. — Ben Zobrist did everything the Rays asked last season, not only playing all over the field but hitting in all nine spots in the order on his way to a breakout offensive performance that included an All-Star Game appearance and a team MVP award.
Now the Rays are asking him to do something potentially more important, moving him into the pivotal No. 3 spot in their dynamic lineup.
Given all the issues the Rays had to deal with this spring — reconfiguring their bullpen around J.P. Howell's injury, sorting out the second base and rightfield paradigm and catching platoon, and picking a fifth starter and seventh reliever — messing with the middle of an order that scored a team-record 803 runs wouldn't have seemed a prime topic of conversation.
But it could turn out to be one of the most significant decisions they made.
Here is a look at what they decided, and with a little bit of why:
I am third
There isn't necessarily any bad way to align three All-Star sluggers who are that good, but the Rays had several reasons for wanting to have Zobrist third with Evan Longoria fourth and Carlos Peña fifth.
The main ones are pretty basic.
Zobrist gets on base more often, and strikes out less often, than the other two. So the Rays figured why not have him bat before them, creating — in theory — the potential for more RBI opportunities for their top sluggers. Plus he's a switch-hitter, which makes it tougher for opponents trying to match up relievers in late innings as the Rays alternate right- and left-handed hitters in front of and behind him.
"The way it is right now, I think that's going to help us," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.
From there it gets a little more complicated.
Whatever percentage of Zobrist's 2009 success was due to the element of surprise will be gone this season, as teams are going to be more prepared for him and likely more tactical, and cautious, in how they pitch him.
So by putting Zobrist in front of Longoria (and Peña and B.J. Upton), the Rays are trying to force opponents to keep challenging him, and throwing him hittable pitches, rather than risk putting him on knowing what's next.
"Zobrist hitting third gets protected by these guys," Maddon said when he first unveiled the idea. "Whereas otherwise, if he's not there, there's really no reason to pitch to him as you might because you don't want him on base for Longo and Peña."
For the plan to work, the Rays are banking on Zobrist not changing what he does. "They can try to pitch around him some, and he's not going to expand his zone," Friedman said.
Zobrist has no plans to change anything (though he does acknowledge it may take some adjustment to batting often with Carl Crawford looking to steal), saying he noticed differences in how he was pitched late in last season when he hit cleanup.
"Different teams pitch you a little different, whether they're going to come at you, try not to walk you or get you to fish at something a lot early in the count," he said.
Plus, he's more concerned with the situation of each at-bat than where in the order he's hitting. "I haven't really thought too much about it (moving to third) … because it really doesn't matter to me," he said. "I try not to let that affect anything about the way I go about my at-bat."
The Rays opened spring talking about a rightfield/second base triangle, with the idea of Zobrist splitting time at second with right-hand hitting Sean Rodriguez and in right with lefty Matt Joyce. But then Joyce got hurt, and righty swinger Gabe Kapler became more involved, and lefty swinger Reid Brignac made the team.
So now the triangle is something of a quadrangle, or even a pentagon, with four players, in five roles, in the mix for time at the two positions. Basically, against right-handed pitchers Zobrist will play right and either Brignac or Rodriguez will play second, and against left-handers, Zobrist will play second and Gabe Kapler right.
"I'm really going back to my geometry days," Maddon said.
Howell's absence is significant, as much as anything because of his somewhat unique ability to handle left- and right-handed hitters equally well.
The Rays simply don't have any one reliever who can do that, so they will have to use several. The plans are for Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour (who had a rough spring) handling tough righties and Lance Cormier and lone lefty Randy Choate the left-handed swingers.
Howell's injury also impacted the other pitching decisions as the Rays called off the competition and made Wade Davis the fifth starter and moved Andy Sonnanstine to the bullpen. Mike Ekstrom got the seventh bullpen spot.
The Rays went into the spring saying only that incumbent Dioner Navarro and newcomer Kelly Shoppach would share time behind the plate as both seek to rebound from miserable 2009 seasons. A month-and-a-half later, they are saying the same thing.
As a switch-hitter, Navarro would get the predominant amount of playing time in a straight platoon since the Rays face many more right-handers. But Maddon said there is no set split in mind, and the decisions will be made based on matchups, with the pitcher they are facing as well as the pitcher they are catching, and also by who's playing better at the time.
"I really don't know," he said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]