A little more than a week into spring training the Rays have won 7 games in a row and the battle for roster spots are well underway. It’s still early but a few players have been standing out, some positively and some negatively.
At the middle infield position we have an interesting battle heating up for the backup job. Sean Rodriguez was tearing it up with a home run in each of his three first games, and he has been solid ever since. But Reid Brignac is holding his own and while he doesn’t have any home runs his average is slightly higher and he has batted more runs in. In the meantime the two players battling for the right field spot Kapler and Joyce haven’t been nearly as spectacular. This made Maddon come out and say yesterday that Ben Zobrist will be starting at both second base and right field during the season, opening up room to keep both Rodriguez and possibly Brignac to play in the infield and only keeping one of Kapler and Joyce for right field. It would probably be Kapler since he can start against left handed pitchers and then Zobrist gets the spot against right handed pitchers.
I don’t like judging starting pitchers by spring training games where they only play a couple of innings at a time and at this point most of them have only played 3-4 innings. Jerremy Hellickson has gotten some attention from two very solid outings, striking out 6 players in just 2.2 innings and not allowing any runs. It won’t earn him a spot on the team yet but we might need him near the end of the season and it’s always nice to see a young pitcher going up against major league players and playing with a lot of confidence. Shields and Wheeler also haven’t allowed any runs and Garza only has one in five innings. The one pitcher who really needs to shine to earn a spot is Sonnanstine but unfortunately in the one inning he has pitched so far he walked three and earned two runs.
At DH and first base we’ve had a little action both on and off the field. First Pat Burrell hasn’t exactly been making any friends. Having spent a year with the team he is apparently getting bored with just being a designated hitter and wants to play some right field. As a player I can understand where he is coming from. It isn’t fun sitting on the bench and it honestly can be hard to stay focused for a full game if you are only in action a couple of times. But when you are about to make $9 million for the year you lose your right to complain about how boring your job is and you better just find a way to stay interested and be ready to play whenever the team needs you. He followed that up with committing one of the major sins a Tampa Bay athlete can commit. He told a Philadelphia newspaper that Philly fans are better than Rays fans. It might not be a big deal to a lot of people and when it comes to baseball you could probably make a pretty good objective argument that he is right. But subjectively I can’t stand any kind of Philly fans and Burrell knows that a lot of Tampa Bay fans feel the same way. He even started the quote by saying that he didn’t know if there was a way to say what he was about to say without getting himself in trouble. No Pat, there is not. Not even if you had actually been living up to expectations last year instead of having your worst year in the majors ever.
The only production Carlos Pena has so far is two walks and a run. He hasn’t had a single hit yet. That might explain why the Rays have signed two new players with first base experience in the past couple of days. First they signed Hank Blalock. The 29 year old have never played for anyone but the Rangers and when he signed with the Rays he said it was because he didn’t have any other offers. While Blalock is a corner infielder his signing came shortly after the comments from Burrell and it has been speculated that he will mainly be a DH. Blalock was signed to a minor league deal. Then today they signed Leslie Anderson, a Cuban national team player who can play at both first base and center field. They signed him to a four year deal. It’s hard to find a lot of information on him and some of the scouting reports are a little contradicting. I’m not even completely sure if the Rays see him as more of a first basemen or a center fielder. None of these moves will mean a whole lot to Pena. He is still the favorite to be the starter. The player who is most likely to be affected if any of these players make the roster is Willy Aybar. Before this he was the favorite to be the backup corner infielder. Now his roster spot is looking a lot less secure. But we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out in the coming weeks.
Overall it has been a positive start to the season for the Rays. When you live across the pond it would be nice if they televised more spring training games. So far I have only been able to watch one game and that was against the Yankees almost a week ago. But a 7-1 start is pretty good no matter how you look at it. I especially like the way the team has been playing in the clutch with a couple of walk off hits and extra inning victories. But still a lot more baseball to look forward to.