It is no secret that the Tampa Bay Rays have not had a permanent shortstop since 2010 when All-Star Jason Bartlett played for the Rays. In the past two seasons, the Rays have had trouble finding someone to replace Bartlett. Several players, including Ben Zobrist, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriquez, have spent time as shortstop, but in December 2012, it was announced that the Rays traded a minor league player to the Miami Marlins for short stop Yunel Escobar. Escobar had spent the past two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays before being traded to the Marlins in November. He would only be there for two weeks before expressing his unwillingness to play at third base and with the Marlin’s slashing their payrolls, he was traded in exchange for infielder Derek Dietrich. Dietrich was MVP of Class-A Charlotte, batting .282 and is expected to play as a third baseman in the Marlin’s system. Escobar is earning $5 million for the 2013 season and the Rays have a $5 million options for 2014 and 2015. At the moment it seems as though the Rays got the better end of the deal.
Escobar spent four years with the Atlanta Braves and two with the Blue Jays – his experience with the Jays should help the Rays when the Rays play them throughout the season. Escobar is a .282 hitter, but only batted .253 in 2012 (could be contributed to switching between short stop and second baseman). A change of scenery and a friendly clubhouse could possibly motivate him and increase his batting numbers since the Rays need to have a permanent shortstop that can provide offense. Besides offense, defense is also very important to the Rays, especially after a 2012 season filled with errors. Escobar ranks fifth among shortstops in runs saved since 2010. The Rays pride themselves on being a defensive team so Escobar should fit right in.
The only incident associated with Escobar is that in September 2012, he was wearing eye black that said “tu ere maricon” which loosely translates into “you are a faggot.” He was suspended for three days, went to sensitivity training, and his lost salary was donated to You Can Play and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “I agree with the suspension. I don’t have any problem with that,” said Escobar. Escobar explained how he doesn’t have anything against homosexuals and that his meant to make fun of the other team, not offend homosexuals. “I think he definitely learned a lesson from the eye-black incident,” Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. This incident should not be a problem with the Rays since Escobar was punished and learned his lesson. If Friedman doesn’t believe it’s a problem, then neither should the Rays fans. The Rays are known for giving players a second chance and being a friendly environment so I’m expecting Escobar to be able to improve the Rays’ shortstop position.
In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays’ shortstop was Jason Bartlett and the second baseman was Akinori Iwamura. The two of them had high batting performances and outstanding defense and helped the Rays make it to the World Series for the first time in the Rays’ history. In 2009, both players were injured by the Florida Marlins; Bartlett suffered from a sprain that put him on the DL and allowed Reid Brignac to play in the majors for a few weeks while Aki suffered a torn ACL that ended his season. After the 2009 season, Aki was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In spring 2010, Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriquez, a player acquired by the Rays in the Scott Kazmir trade, began competing against each other for the opening day spot left vacant by Aki. Though Brignac had major league experience, Rodriquez could play any position. The problem was solved when the right fielder Matt Joyce, who was acquired from the Edwin Jackson trade, injured his elbow and started opening day on the DL. Though the second base position was shared by Rodriquez and Ben Zobrist while shortstop was shared by Brignac and Bartlett, Rodriquez and Brignac continued to bat well (Brignac batted .256 and Rodriquez batted .251, both averages were considered high for the 2010 Rays) and play outstanding defense. Due to a decrease in payroll, the Rays were forced to trade Bartlett to the San Diego Padres since they had Brignac or Rodriquez to play shortstop.
In spring 2011, there was a new question that was brought up; where was Zobrist going to play? Zobrist had just signed a $14.5 million contract that would keep him with the Rays until 2015, but he was coming off a sluggish year. Though Joyce was finally healed and ready to play right field, but his batting average was just .200 during spring training. It looked as though Brignac would be the starting short stop while Rodriquez and Joyce would share their positions with Zobrist; Joyce, being left handed, would bat against left-handed pitchers. This plan changed after the Rays 0-6 start. Joyce seemed a waste of space in the batters’ box and Joe Maddon benched him one game so he could clear his head.
After being benched, Joyce was never the same again. At the moment, Joyce is batting .365, an average that is second only to Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista. Joyce has hit seven homeruns, driven in 21 runs, and has been intentionally walked four times this season. Joyce’s hot streak has caused him to be the everyday right fielder; Joyce no longer has to share his position with Zobrist. Zobrist’s 2011 season has also started off great; his batting average is currently .282 and he has driven in 28 runs. Zobrist quickly became the starting second baseman since Rodriquez’s current batting average is .200 and he has shown sloppy defense this year.
Back at shortstop, Brignac has also been underperforming this year. He is currently batting .179; batting just .102 in the past 14 games he’s played in. Joe Maddon recently told Brignac that Elliot Johnson would be taking over shortstop for a while. After all, Johnson is batting .283 with two homeruns and seven runs batted in; he batted .375 on the Rays’ last homestead. Johnson had been with the Triple-A Durham Bulls and was recognized as the team’s Most Valuable Player by the Rays Baseball Operations. On Tuesday against the Yankees, Johnson hit a homerun, scoring the only run for the Rays.
Tonight (May 19th) against the Blue Jays, Brignac and Rodriquez will be in the starting line-up. Hopefully, they’ll be able to prove tonight that they are just experiencing a slump and that last year was no fluke.
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