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He may not be the Rays' MVP, but he’s still indispensable

John Romano | He’s not a power hitter, doesn’t walk much and doesn’t even have his own position. So why is Joey Wendle one of Tampa Bay’s most valuable players?
From 2018-20, Joey Wendle's WAR (wins above replacement) is the fourth-highest on the Rays' roster.
From 2018-20, Joey Wendle's WAR (wins above replacement) is the fourth-highest on the Rays' roster. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 14, 2020|Updated Oct. 14, 2020

He was a prospect once in Cleveland before he became trade bait. He was a minor-league star for Oakland before the Athletics ran out of roster room. He was the starting second baseman and a Rookie of the Year candidate in Tampa Bay before Brandon Lowe showed up.

And the funny thing is, Joey Wendle doesn’t seem to mind. He has always understood that he may have a certain appeal today, but that his skill set does not guarantee anything for tomorrow.

Of course, it helps that today is looking pretty sweet for Wendle.

Call it perseverance or fate or design. The kid who played Division II college baseball and didn’t get drafted until he was 22, who was traded by the Indians after three minor-league seasons, who was designated for assignment by the Athletics two years after leading the Pacific Coast League in hits, is now the starting third baseman for the potential American League champions.

And, by the way, he’s tearing it up.

Trailing by one in the sixth inning, Wendle hit a bases-loaded single on an 0-2 pitch to jump-start a five-run inning and send the Rays on their way to a 5-2 victory in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series Tuesday night.

“Joey doesn’t look to do too much. I think he was frustrated that he missed a pitch to put him to 0-2, but he stays on everything,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He’s kind of a line-to-line hitter. He can pull the ball right down the line or shoot it the other way down the line. Very tough to position.”

With the 2-for-4 night, Wendle is now hitting .308 in the postseason and is second on the team behind Randy Arozarena with eight hits.

And, he’s probably been better with the glove than the bat.

“Wendle has looked like Brooks Robinson or Graig Nettles over there in the World Series,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said before Game 3.

He is one of the most dependable players on the field, but his journey has been anything but predictable.

You see, Wendle is an all-around player in an increasingly specialized game. He doesn’t hit for power, and he doesn’t walk a lot. He’s a pretty good baserunner, but he doesn’t have great speed. And while his defense is elite level, he’s rarely had a position to call his own.

Yet, from 2018-20, his WAR (wins above replacement) is the fourth-highest on the Rays' roster.

In 2020, only Willy Adames and Lowe started more games for Tampa Bay in the regular season than Wendle. Yet, technically, he was a backup. He started 18 games behind Lowe at second, nine games behind Adames at shortstop and 18 games behind Yandy Diaz at third base.

“I don’t mind that I’m not a starting second baseman or a starting third baseman or a starting shortstop,” Wendle said. “I take pride in the fact that I can fill in at all three of those positions, I can give Willy a day off at short or give B-Low a day off at second. It’s a role I’ve been doing for a few years now and it’s one that I’ve grown to be comfortable with. I take pride in it. It’s something I’ve embraced and tried to do the best with it.”

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Wendle has been in the starting lineup at third base for eight of Tampa Bay’s first 10 postseason games, partially because Diaz has been limited by a hamstring injury but also because of what Wendle brings to the lineup.

He clearly is the Rays' best defensive third baseman, but he’s also one of their best contact hitters. On a team that struck out more than any other in the American League, Wendle gives the Rays a hitter who can slap an opposite-field single in a key situation like Game 3. Only Manuel Margot and Diaz had lower strikeout rates on the Rays.

Presumably, that’s one of the reasons Wendle and Margot have been starting in the postseason while Yoshi Tsutsugo has barely played a role.

“He does such a good job of giving us balance in our lineup,” Cash said. "And defensively, we’ve got him as good as any defensive player in baseball at third, short or second. His first-step quickness is off the charts. And then there’s the intangibles of what he brings and just the type of person he is.”

There’s at least a decent chance that Wendle will not be Tampa Bay’s starting third baseman on opening day in 2021. While he hits a ton of doubles, most teams like to have more power at third base.

And if it turns out that way, that’ll probably be fine with Wendle, too. His worth is not in long-term potential, but in everyday value.

“I mean, I’m just a baseball player,” Wendle said. “My goal is to come out and be as high quality a baseball player as I can, and that means every facet of the game from baserunning to offense to defense.”

For today, that’s just what the Rays want.

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

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