JUPITER — Rays infielder Adam Kennedy did his part Monday to downplay his return to Roger Dean Stadium, where he trained for several springs while with the Cardinals.
You can excuse Kennedy for not having any warm and fuzzy feelings.
Kennedy, 33, was the Cardinals' opening day second baseman the past two seasons, but he was abruptly released last month after he said he fell out of favor with manager Tony La Russa.
La Russa insisted Monday he wasn't angry at Kennedy, whom he has "tremendous professional and personal respect for" — a point he plans to make in a future phone call. La Russa said it just wouldn't have been a good fit, with the Cardinals planning an open competition (converting outfielder Skip Schumaker into a second baseman), and Kennedy wanting to be "the guy."
Though the two will disagree on that issue, there's one thing Kennedy, La Russa and Rays manager Joe Maddon agree on: a change of scenery for Kennedy, via a minor-league deal with the Rays, could work out for everyone, including Tampa Bay.
Kennedy, who picked up two hits and an RBI Monday, is taking advantage of extra innings at second base (while Akinori Iwamura is at the World Baseball Classic), and Maddon plans to use the former Angels star in a super-utility role this spring.
In today's exhibition against the Astros, Kennedy will start at third base, a position he has never played in a regular-season game, and he will get some chances in the outfield in the coming weeks.
Maddon, who knows Kennedy from their time in Anaheim, calls him a "grinder," a hard-nosed competitor and winner who welcomes this opportunity, even if it will likely take him to Triple-A Durham to start the season.
"He's a well above-average major-league second baseman," Maddon said. "But he understands our situation; if he's able to play more spots, it bodes him well."
In his nine big-league seasons, Kennedy has played 1,161 games at second base and 10 in rightfield. He has played more positions in the past couple of seasons, including three games at first last year.
La Russa said Kennedy had a "hell of a year" and was a "hell of a teammate," saying the Cardinals didn't want to trade him to the Angels in 2000. Kennedy became ALCS MVP during Anaheim's World Series run in 2002.
Kennedy said he's not upset with La Russa; he had more of an issue with the Cardinals management, specifically their timing of releasing him in February. St. Louis will, however, pick up all but the major-league minimum $400,000 portion of Kennedy's $4 million salary.
"It's just that (Kennedy) said he'd like to be traded unless 'I'm the guy,' and I couldn't promise him he was the guy," La Russa said. "Not only that, he was going to walk into this camp and be competing with a guy who is moving from the outfield — which doesn't look too good."
But La Russa said Kennedy could be a good find for the Rays organization and work well in the super-utility role.
"Last year he played rightfield at Wrigley Field, and looked like a champ," La Russa said. "He can play second base. You know he can play short and third. He's a very good fit."
Maddon, who called Kennedy "one of the best teammates, best clubhouse guys I've ever been around," cited his work ethic, saying the Riverside, Calif., native wasn't "an accomplished second baseman by any means when he first began" but got better.
Whether Kennedy contributes at the big-league level for the Rays remains to be seen.
"Things happen during the course of camp, and you never know," Maddon said. "So if something were to happen, you have a guy of that magnitude within your organization, within your team right now, who can make quite a difference on the impact of the season."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.