PORT CHARLOTTE — Infielder Reid Brignac may have a trip south of the border partly to thank for his hot spring start.
Sensing how big this year could be in terms of breaking into the big leagues, Brignac, 24, volunteered to play winter ball with Mexican team Venados de Mazatlan. Over the six-week span, Brignac said, facing pitchers who threw a lot of offspeed pitches forced him to be more selective, and dealing with the rougher field conditions challenged him defensively.
"It really helped me a lot," Brignac said. "Coming into spring training, it was almost like it was midseason."
It has showed. Brignac has delivered in camp, hitting .417 with a team-high 13 RBIs (and just one strikeout) and receiving rave reviews for his much-improved approach at the plate. And though his main competition for the second base job, Sean Rodriguez, has garnered plenty of attention, Brignac is making a strong case to make his first opening day roster.
"Reid really wants to be here, Reid believes he belongs here," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's very driven right now. He does believe he belongs here, and he's proving it right now. I just love what he's doing."
The Rays knew what Brignac could do defensively, as he was named the International League's best defensive shortstop by Baseball America for two straight seasons. They saw his willingness to become more versatile in working at second base since last spring and playing third last week. But it has been his steady improvement at the plate, in terms of pitch selection and leveling out what used to be more of an uppercut swing, that's helping him take the next step.
"I think the main reason for my success is really being patient and really concerned about getting a good pitch that I can handle instead of a pitch I can put in play," Brignac (pronounced Brin-yac) said. "Just taking pitches and seeing pitches, I feel that I'm seeing the ball really well, and I feel I'm confident enough where … if I have two strikes on me, I can still put the ball in play."
Brignac has played 35 big-league games in the past two seasons. After going 0-for-10 in a brief stint in 2008, he got more comfortable in more regular duty last year. With Jason Bartlett on the disabled list, Brignac appeared in 21 of 22 games (including 16 starts), getting into a regular rhythm and gaining confidence. In September, he hit .333 in nine games, including a 4-for-4 night against Baltimore.
"He's got a great aptitude, and he listens," Maddon said. "He came to us with a severe uppercut, and when you're a young kid working through that, it does take some time."
Brignac said the success has been a product of maturity as well as making adjustments. He'll notice times where, in the past, he'd chase a pitch to put it in play, and now he tries to put himself in favorable counts.
"I'm taking pitches and not having to worry about striking out," Brignac said. "I was always worried about, 'I've gotta get a hit, I've gotta get a hit.' Now, it's, 'I've gotta get a good pitch to hit.' If I don't get a pitch to hit, then I'll take my walks."
Brignac realizes how tight the competition has been to be part of the second base/rightfield platoon, with Rodriguez (four homers, .400 average) and outfielder Matt Joyce (.417, seven RBIs) likely making the roster decisions tough for the Rays brass.
But Brignac also feels he's ready to play every day; he just needs a chance.
"He's an unbelievable shortstop, he's got great talent, and good hands," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "If he can continue to swing his bat like he can, he's going to be a good one."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.