Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' Rodriguez goes for variety

PORT CHARLOTTE — The six gloves Sean Rodriguez lugs around this spring are the most obvious sign of what went wrong last season.

Finally given the opportunity he sought for years from the Rays to play every day, Rodriguez failed somewhat miserably.

So now he's back to playing everywhere.

Rodriguez, 27, will be used in a super-utility role, slated for some platoon starts at first and second base and reserve duty at short, third and all three outfield spots, even emergency catcher designation.

It's not bad work — nor bad pay with a $1 million salary this season — but it's a daily reminder of what Rodriguez let slip away, as he began last season as the starting shortstop then moved over to third base after Evan Longoria's injury.

"I understand I had a little opportunity there and I didn't make everything I could out of it. It wasn't a total go-ahead shot, but it was definitely a shot," Rodriguez said.

"So that's on me. It's on me. And I know Andrew (Friedman, executive vice president) and Joe (Maddon, manager) and all of them know that. They offered me a contract, taking a chance, saying, 'You know what, okay, we still believe that there's more there.'

"So that's what I'm out to prove. I'm not out to prove anything else but that, that there's definitely more there."

There definitely is more there. Rodriguez has immense athleticism, talent and desire, but he is one of those enigmatic players to watch, the type who can showcase tremendous skills to make a dazzling play, then botch the next, much more routine one. Offensively, he can be maddening, too, getting away from working quality at-bats, where he could make the most of his speed by playing a small-ball game, and getting pull and/or power happy.

Thus, consistency is a primary focus.

Rodriguez never really showed much last season, starting out okay and getting worse from there, hitting just .213, with a .281 on-base percentage, for the year — which included first losing his starting job, then a demotion to Triple A, with the added embarrassment of breaking his hand punching a locker in frustration.

Maddon said he's not sure exactly what went awry last season, throwing out the possibility that Rodriguez felt a burden to do more after Longoria's April 30 hamstring injury.

"I think he never really got it going, and then he'd kind of press to get it going," Maddon said. "That happens with some guys."

Rodriguez isn't, either, saying it was just an overall down year. "Most definitely disappointing," he said. "There were plenty of times when I contributed, but there's a lot more I need to contribute. I can't be settling for that, that's for sure."

Though the Rays saw enough promise to bring back Rodriguez — remember, they ditched both Elliot Johnson and Reid Brignac in minor trades — it is clear his role has been significantly diminished.

They traded for Yunel Escobar to play shortstop and signed both Kelly Johnson, who seems likely to be first in line among the "quad-toon" planned for second base, and James Loney, a lefty swinger who will be the primary first baseman.

That leaves Rodriguez to help out wherever, and however, needed. (With the benefit of being a right-handed hitter on a roster that leans a bit to the left.) And, once again, waiting for his chance.

"It's just the mental mind-set, just understanding your role, just trying to make the best of that and find a way to succeed with that, whether it's minimal opportunity or not," he said. "If that's what's going to get me at-bats, I'm fine with it."

Maddon said they know that, and there's value in Rodriguez, the son of longtime minor-league coach/manager Johnny Rodriguez, being one of those rare players who really is capable of playing, and willing to play, anywhere on the field.

"He truly has no fear," Maddon said. "He's always been that guy. He feels like there's nothing he cannot do. That's just who he is."

Now it's just a matter of how many he can do well.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

   
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