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Rays’ Daniel Robertson readying for return from injury with added focus

The Rays hope that the multi-talented infielder can build on last season’s strides.
 
Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Daniel Robertson (28) dives for a ball vs. the Phillies at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte on Feb. 22. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Daniel Robertson (28) dives for a ball vs. the Phillies at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte on Feb. 22. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Published March 18, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE —Daniel Robertson takes these days of spring training seriously, even the ones where he’s left walking back to the dugout talking to himself.

There’s no questioning Robertson’s skill. A case could be made that he was the Rays’ most valuable player for most of last season until a thumb injury that required surgery sidelined him two months early. Before that, he posted a .380 on-base percentage in 87 games — improving his OPS by 163 points over the previous while playing steady defense at second, shortstop and third.

“He hasn’t been lost on us,” said Rays general manager Erik Neander. “He’s a wonderfully talented player. Offensively, he took a sizable step forward last year, and we’re excited to see him build on that.”

Robertson’s injury robbed him of being part of the Rays’ 28-11 finish and the team playing its way into postseason contention. Entering this season, Robertson doesn’t have a defined defensive position — he’s likely to see time leading off on days he plays — but he still might be one of the team’s most important players because of his flexibility.

“He’s going to be a huge part,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Huge part. Working all over the infield — second, short and third. ... I’m excited to see him, and hopefully we can kind of project a healthy season for him. We talked late July (when he got hurt), he was such a big part to everything we were doing. Close to playing every day, we were rotating in and out, and I see that happening again this year with a lot of our guys, and he’s right at the top."

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Robertson had a scalding spring training start, going 8-for-16 at the plate over his first six Grapefruit League games. Since then, entering Monday’s game, he was 1-for-16 over his past seven games, with his third-inning single Sunday snapping a 14 at-bat hitless streak.

Most players wouldn’t put much stock in those stats, but to Robertson, it’s much better that he goes through a stretch like this now.

“It’s spring training, right?” he said. “I have the luxury of learning about myself now and going through it rather than everything being sunshine and rainbows for these four or five weeks and then it happens during the season when it matters and you’re like, ‘What the hell?’ March 28 is when it counts.”

He spent the offseason retooling his swing, concentrating on keeping his bat in the zone longer, particularly with two strikes. He’s stayed true to his approach throughout his recent spring struggles.

“It’s more about understanding what you’re doing, why you’re doing when you’re doing it,” Robertson said. “A lot of times when I was good in previous years, I didn’t understand why. So when I was bad, I had nothing to go through, so for me, it’s nice to see it fall apart because I know the keys to go back when that’s happening and fix it.”

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Defensively, he’s been sound. Cash has the trust to put him anywhere along the infield, and this spring he’s shown that a rough stretch at the plate hasn’t affected his ability to play sound defense, which is something that does translate to the regular season. In Sunday’s game, Robertson made a tremendous diving catch down the third-base line against the Red Sox that saved at least one run.

“We’re a lot better with him back,” said second baseman Joey Wendle. “There’s not an aspect of his game that isn’t solid. Just sure hands, sure feet, good arm. And, offensively, what he brings to the table is strong as well. We’re glad to have him back out there.”

The Rays are built around having a flexible roster of players who can play multiple positions, and Neander said that Robertson being able to play all over — he’s also played the outfield and first base — is doubly valuable in case other players don’t meet early expectations.

“It helps when you have a young squad that’s not proven across the board…,” Neander said. “So to have someone like Robby to bounce around and fit our team in a lot of different ways, it really gives us the ultimate flexibility when it comes to us learning about our players and how we can put the most competitive team on the field.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.