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Three Tampa Bay Rays youngsters battling to fill either second base or rightfield

PORT CHARLOTTE

Ben Zobrist swears — well, okay, he never swears, so he insists — he doesn't care whether he ends up playing second base or rightfield or both this season. That's a good thing, because the way the Rays are planning to resolve the biggest issue of their otherwise placid spring, he may not know for a while. And he's likely to have very little to do with the outcome. The Rays are so comfortable with Zobrist at either position — "He's equally good," manager Joe Maddon said — they are essentially taking his play out of the equation. Instead, he'll man what's open after an unorthodox competition for the other spot playing out at two positions, with Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac battling with each other at second, and with rightfielder Matt Joyce. "It's a little crazy," Brignac said. Obviously, it's not a simple decision. Nor an easy one. "Maybe the toughest we've ever had to make," Maddon said. "Because we feel like they are all big-league players right now."

But only two, under most configurations of their 25-man roster, will even make the team.

"For the most part, Joyce, Rodriguez and Brignac are competing for meaningful at-bats," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Then the other two are probably competing for a spot on the team, and then the one will probably be in (Triple-A) Durham."

Primarily, Friedman said, they going to look for "the combination we feel like will help us score the most runs and prevent the most runs." And — if you're looking for clues — not necessarily in that order. "Both," he said, "are very important to us."

The Rays consider all three above-average defenders, with Rodriguez probably the smoothest. Joyce (a lefty swinger) and Rodriguez (a righty) have thunder in their bats; Brignac (also a lefty) not as much. All are young and have minor-league options.

And there will be other factors, such as their impact on the rest of the lineup; Brignac's value as the backup shortstop (and whether Rodriguez could handle that role); and the resulting composition of the bench.

What it may come down to is whether the Rays feel they're better with Zobrist (a switch-hitter) in right and Rodriguez (or Brignac) at second, or Zobrist at second and Joyce (plus Gabe Kapler) in right.

There's also the very real possibility they could split the difference with a double platoon based on matchups, with Zobrist and Joyce facing right-handers and Zobrist and Rodriguez against lefties.

As complex as it sounds, the players involved are trying to simplify the situation.

"They say it's between me and Zobrist and Brignac, I've heard it all," Rodriguez said. "But the way I see it, it's me vs. me."

Said Joyce: "It comes down to what you can control."

Rodriguez, 24, is the new guy, acquired in the Scott Kazmir trade last season with the Angels, for whom he started 56 games at second. He has already impressed the Rays with his quick hands and feet and athleticism, plus his versatility to play the outfield (and be the emergency catcher). "Whatever it takes," he said.

The bigger question is at the plate, where he has shown impressive power (32 homers in 2009) but also a pattern of striking out a lot (once every 3.96 pro at-bats).

Joyce, 25, is seeking another shot, having spent most of last season at Triple A after being acquired from Detroit. The Rays challenged him to become a better all-around player, to be more aggressive on the bases and get better jumps on fly balls, and he did so with hours of extra practice.

"They said they hadn't heard the best things about my work ethic, and I was really determined to prove them wrong," Joyce said.

Brignac, 24, is seemingly the long shot, a natural (and potential future starting) shortstop trying to show he can make a smooth move across the base. He, too, is working hard but has limited experience at second (15 pro starts) and some things to improve on such as first-step quickness, reading the ball off the bat and other nuances. "It's just proving myself," he said.

While they compete, Zobrist will work at both spots. The Rays' only concern is the impact on his arm, given the difference in throwing motion for the two positions, but there have not been any issues.

After spending the past two springs competing to make the team as a utility man, Zobrist said he's really not ruffled by the situation. "The uncertainty is old hand to me," he said. "And I'm okay with it because I'm used to it."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Take your pick

The Rays are picking among these three players to fill the final spot in their lineup:

ML stats Minor stats

Player, age G Avg. HR RBI E G Avg. HR RBI E

Reid Brignac, 24 35 .250 1 6 4 609 .281 74 358 112

Matt Joyce, 25 103 .245 15 40 4 484 .273 61 209 15

Sean Rodriguez, 24 71 .203 5 14 2 744 .281 137 451 112

Three Tampa Bay Rays youngsters battling to fill either second base or rightfield 02/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 27, 2010 9:22pm]
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