Last spring, utility man Ben Zobrist played his way into a full-time role by compiling a .345 average and .920 OPS in 55 Grapefruit League at-bats. The versatile 28-year-old then caught lightning in a bottle and finished the season as the American League's most valuable player, according to Wins Above Replacement.
This March might be second-baseman Sean Rodriguez's time to shine.
The Rays acquired Rodriguez from the Los Angeles Angels as the player to be named in the Scott Kazmir trade consummated last August. Rodriguez, 24, spent seven seasons in the Angels' minor league system, and logged an impressive .281 average and .881 OPS. But the 90th overall pick in the 2003 draft didn't truly break out until 2009, when he blasted 29 homers in just 365 at-bats for Triple-A Salt Lake City, taking advantage of the hitter-friendly environments in the Pacific Coast League.
Nonetheless, big league opportunities have been scant for Rodriguez, because the Angels had a plethora of capable middle-infielders in Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis. In 192 at-bats over parts of two seasons with Anaheim, Rodriguez hit just .203, but his lack of production can be overlooked in light of inconsistent playing time.
Just as Zobrist wowed manager Joe Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman in Florida last spring, Rodriguez has started off his exhibition season with a bang, hitting three homers in as many days. In the Rays' 12-7 victory over the Yankees on Friday, Rodriguez finished just a single shy of the cycle, and his third homer of the spring was served up by Phil Hughes.
The primary concern with Rodriguez is whether he will be able to maintain a respectable batting average in the majors, despite his bloated strikeout totals. During the aforementioned, power-packed campaign for Salt Lake City last season, Rodriguez struck out 119 times, so while he consistently hit the ball with authority, he didn't make contact all that often.
Still, if Rodriguez continues cranking the ball out of the park in Port Charlotte, Fla., the Rays will have to consider him as a candidate for their starting lineup. Tampa Bay is currently projected to start Zobrist at second base, while platooning Gabe Kapler and Matt Joyce in right field. However, Zobrist's ability to capably man both positions would enable Maddon to hand Rodriguez an everyday job if he maintains the torrid pace throughout the teamâs Grapefruit League slate.
With the Red Sox and Yankees having restocked their rosters during the offseason, the Rays will need every bit of production they can muster to contend in the American League East.