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You never know where Rays’ Mike Brosseau will start, but you know what you’ll get

John Romano | Just 200 at-bats into his big-league career, Brosseau is turning heads as a utility player.
Mike Brosseau hits against the Braves in the Rays' spring opener Sunday at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.
Mike Brosseau hits against the Braves in the Rays' spring opener Sunday at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 28
Updated Mar. 1

PORT CHARLOTTE — He’s already played six positions since his major-league debut and is expected to add a seventh in 2021. He hit .302 in the pandemic-shortened regular season last year and then hit one of the biggest home runs in Tampa Bay history against the Yankees in the postseason.

He’s popular in the clubhouse and recognizable on TV, and he crushed a homer while hitting cleanup in the first spring game Sunday.

Yup, one of these days Mike Brosseau may even find a steady job with the Rays.

Hard to believe, considering how ubiquitous he’s been, but Brosseau never started more than three games in a row at any point in 2020. Advanced metrics say he was one of Tampa Bay’s top four or five position players last season, but he has yet to find a spot to call home.

In fact, the entirety of his big-league career still adds up to only 218 at-bats.

Not that you’ll hear a complaint out of him. When you go undrafted out of a nondescript school (Oakland University in Michigan), you learn to fight for your opportunities and appreciate what you get. When you’re 5 feet 10 and more thick than long-limbed, you realize no tape measure or stopwatch will tell your story better than attitude or performance.

“ ‘Bross,’ like a lot of other guys in this organization, might not be your stout, dream player,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Not if you’re going to a showcase and watching (batting practice) or ground balls or 60 (yard) times or throwing from across the diamond.

“But when you watch him over time, you see the work he puts in and the consistency he’s shown at this level. Always giving a competitive at-bat and making the plays he’s supposed to make, and some of the ones that really wow you. He’s just a really good baseball player.”

The world got its first clue about that in October when Brosseau turned on a 100-mph fastball from Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and drilled a home run in the eighth inning of the deciding game of the American League Division Series.

It wasn’t just that the homer broke a 1-1 tie and turned out to be the winning blow in Game 5. And it wasn’t just that Brosseau had fought and fouled his way through the 10-pitch at-bat.

What made it one of the defining moments of the 2020 postseason was that, one month earlier, Chapman had thrown a 101-mph fastball directly at Brosseau’s head, leading to Cash’s infamous declaration that he had a stable of pitchers who could throw that hard.

Brosseau said he eventually heard from a lot of players around the game — including Phillies star Bryce Harper through social media — about the moment. It seemed to strike a chord, he said, with hitters who understand the dangers of pitchers throwing up and in.

“It’s never fun to have something high and tight, but we’ve all been there. It’s part of the game,” Brosseau said. “I think it resonates a lot for people who have been there and can understand the situation. Having everything that happened last season kind of funnel into that one particular moment in the postseason just (highlighted) everything a little bit more.”

For Brosseau, it was just another confirmation that he’s arrived in the big leagues. Even if he wasn’t a hot prospect out of high school and even if he was already 22 and had to settle for a $1,000 bonus when his pro career began in 2016, Brosseau has turned heads at every step in the Rays organization. It’s the attitude and the bat. The willingness to play everywhere and the skill to pull it off.

Since his big-league debut in the summer of 2019, Brosseau has started games first base, second base, third base and leftfield. He’s also logged time in rightfield and made four appearances as an emergency pitcher. What makes him especially valuable is he has more pop in his bat than the typical utility player. Only eight players appeared in at least three infield spots and two outfield spots in 2020, and Brosseau’s .936 OPS was the best of the bunch.

He still doesn’t have a set spot on the field, but there’s an opportunity for more at-bats as the right-handed-hitting half of a platoon at first base with Ji-Man Choi. Brosseau has also begun working out at shortstop for the first time since college to give Cash another option behind Willy Adames and Joey Wendle.

Brosseau said he spent a good portion of the offseason working on his first-step quickness with the idea that it would benefit him at shortstop and every other position.

And if that means bouncing around the infield and coming in and out of the lineup depending on whether there’s a lefthander on the mound, Brosseau said he’s happy to just be useful.

“That takes a special knack, that’s not easy to do,” Cash said of Brosseau’s versatility. “It’s kind of a running joke: ‘Are you ready? Are you loose?’ (Brosseau says) ‘You don’t have to get loose when you wake up loose, you don’t have to get ready when you wake up ready.’ Anytime you ask him, you’re going to get that. And he’s being genuine. The guy can get out of bed and be ready to play.”

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