PORT CHARLOTTE — The enormous task the Rays face in replacing Gold Glove winner Carl Crawford in leftfield will allow centerfielder B.J. Upton to showcase part of his game rarely seen before.
"I can confirm," Upton said, "that I can go to my right."
Upton has rarely needed to, as Crawford routinely ran down balls from the line into left-centerfield and then some. But with Crawford, 2008 Gold Glove first baseman Carlos Peña and 2009 All-Star shortstop Jason Bartlett all working elsewhere, doing more is going to be catching as the Rays seek to maintain the defensive excellence so vital to their success.
"I'm really hung up on the defense," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We've got to catch the ball. … I don't care how much we hit; if we don't pitch it and catch it, we're not going to win. We're not."
But with Johnny Damon replacing Crawford, Dan Johnson taking over for Peña and Reid Brignac stepping in for Bartlett, they are going to do it in another, or at least a different, way.
"It's definitely going to be a different defensive team, but we feel strongly that we're going to be an above-average defensive team," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We think our defense is going to be a big asset for us and is going to help us win a lot of games. It will just be different than in years past."
The Rays are realistic enough to acknowledge that nobody actually can replace Crawford, and that no matter whom they put out there he'll look lesser by comparison.
But Damon, 37, has a good take on it.
"Someone's got to do it," he said. "And I'm excited to be the one."
After spending most of last season primarily as Detroit's DH, Damon said he is looking forward to running around on the grass, figuring good jumps and proper routes will be assets. "The more I'm out there, the better I'll be," Damon said.
Plus, the Rays will give Damon some help.
"We think Johnny is going to do an above-average job in leftfield, and that we'll be able to move things around to get guys out there that are going to be strengths for us," Friedman said. "But there's only one Carl Crawford in leftfield, and we're not thinking we're going to have exactly the same type of defensive production."
Look for the Rays to be precise in positioning from batter to batter and cheat him in when they can to compensate for Damon's arm. Expect reserve outfielder Sam Fuld to be used early and often when they have a lead. And figure that Upton will be shaded a bit more to the leftfield side and encouraged to be more aggressive in going that direction, literally taking on a larger responsibility.
"I think he's more than capable of handling it, and I think he wants it," starter James Shields said. "He's already shown in spring training he's really embracing the fact that he doesn't have to be Carl's understudy, that he's the guy chasing all the balls down in the outfield."
Following Peña, who won the Gold Glove in 2008 and was only slightly less stellar since, is almost as tough as Crawford.
While Johnson understands he will never be known for being as good as Peña, he doesn't understand why he's constantly referred to, in the most polite terms, as the guy whose defense isn't as bad as you think.
"I'll be known as the guy who could never field no matter what happens, I guess," he said. "I hope to change it this year with the opportunity."
As Oakland's semi-regular starter in 2005-07, and with Triple-A Durham, Johnson was considered adequate, a word you'll hear a lot. He has the hands to make the routine plays but doesn't look particularly smooth in doing so, more a product of his footwork. Range might be an issue. (There is also the possibility the Rays could keep Casey Kotchman, who is on par with Peña but doesn't have Johnson's power.)
"We think he can do a good job over there," Rays infield coach Tom Foley said. "We know he's no Carlos Peña; we all know that. … 'Los made a lot of plays look easy. We haven't seen Dan too much over at first. Talking to the Triple-A staff, they say he does an adequate job over at first, and we believe he can do it."
The Rays have the most confidence in, and the least concern about, Brignac replacing Jason Bartlett. Simply, because Brignac might be better.
Actually, Maddon says, Brignac, with only 61 big-league starts at short, is already one of the best in the game.
"Defensively, I'll stack him up against anybody on the field," Maddon said. "Anybody out there right now I'll put him up against them catching the ball and throwing accurately."
The Rays are so enamored with his defense that they, at least as of now, are willing to put aside concerns about his offense and plan on him for pretty much everyday duty, even against left-handed pitchers. "I really don't want to see him sitting next to me too often," Maddon said.
Brignac, 25, feels he served his apprenticeship under Bartlett well. "Bart's gone, but hopefully I can do some of the things he did last year, so it's not like we're missing anything there," he said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]