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First base boot camp now in session for Rays

Romano: Tampa Bay has always put a premium on defense, but is prepared to lessen its standards to gain offense and versatility.
Ji-Man Choi (26) hugs Yandy Diaz (2) during the Tampa Bay Rays first full-squad spring training workout at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte on Monday. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Ji-Man Choi (26) hugs Yandy Diaz (2) during the Tampa Bay Rays first full-squad spring training workout at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte on Monday. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Published Feb. 27, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — In Colorado, this might be justifiable. In Detroit or Pittsburgh it might sound like a prudent and familiar plan. In Tampa Bay, it feels like heresy.

Remember, this is a franchise that built its brand on defense. A franchise that rode the concept of run prevention to the World Series and four playoff appearances in six years.

And yet the Rays are willingly exchanging defense at first base for more offense and versatility. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it could be a very good thing.

It just seems strange and out-of-character for this team.

So how, exactly, did we get here?

The Rays cut ties with first baseman C.J. Cron during the winter, in part because he had no versatility and was a defensive liability. But then they also traded Jake Bauers to Cleveland for Yandy Diaz.

Suddenly, the 40-man roster was bereft of first basemen with big league experience. You had Ji-Man Choi, who has been more designated hitter than first baseman. You had Diaz, who is a natural third baseman with six career starts at first base. And you had Brandon Lowe, a rookie second baseman who had to ask Rawlings to overnight him a first baseman’s mitt after Bauers was traded.

Not quite the days of Carlos Pena and his Gold Glove.

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But there was a purpose behind the moves for the Rays. They saw great potential in Diaz’s bat, they wanted to make sure Choi was in the lineup against righthanded pitchers, and they like Lowe’s versatility and pop. The price for all of that was on-the-job-training at first base.

“Whether they say it explicitly or not, every team has to weigh those type of trade-offs on their roster,’’ said Rays senior vice president Chaim Bloom. “This is nothing new for us, we’re always trying to give (manager Kevin) Cash players he can utilize in different positions to maximize their strengths.’’

In this case, that means Cash can play Diaz at first base or third base depending on the situation. Choi can play first base, outfield or be the DH. Lowe, if he makes the team, can play second base, first base or outfield. All of which means spring training has had a whiff of first base boot camp to it.

There are video sessions to go over positioning and cutoff responsibilities. There are drills on catching short hops. There’s footwork and double-plays and holding runners. Third base coach Rodney Linares, who is Tampa Bay’s infield instructor, says a lot of the work with Choi and Diaz is refining and fine-tuning while Lowe is getting the full course load.

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“When you’re in Little League they stick the biggest and goofiest guy at first base, but it’s really one of the toughest positions out there,’’ Linares said. “When you think that as much as 70 percent of the outs in a game can come at first base, you’ve got to be able to catch that ball. There is a lot of technique and there’s a lot of thought-processing behind every play.’’

Lowe, who worked with Pirates minor league first baseman Will Craig in the off-season, has been showing up early most days this spring to work with Linares around first base. His biggest concern is the instinctive part of the game. Knowing where to be at every moment without hesitation.

“I don’t want to be out of position at that crucial moment when a throw goes through because I wasn’t there to cut it off and it bites us in the butt,’’ Lowe said. “I just want to get to a place where no one has to worry about me. They know I’m going to catch the ball in the dirt and be in the right spot.’’

So what will be a success for the Rays at first base?

Not having to rush Nate Lowe through the minors to take over the position would help. And, to be fair, it’s not like the new first basemen are following a tremendous act. Cron was a below-average fielder, and Bauers did not have great defensive metrics, although he was adept on saving bad throws.

And that, for fans, might be the most noticeable difference. A first baseman’s range is not going to make or break a season, but you can’t afford to see too many low throws bounce away.

“If you watch a big league game every night you’ll see 1 or 2 balls picked at first base,’’ Linares said. “If you don’t make those plays, your shortstop has an error and you’re giving the other team 1 or 2 extra outs."

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John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.