Thursday, March 27, 2014

What the Twins don't get about the Rays' "interchangability"

Ben Zobrist plays all over the field for Tampa Bay.
He also hits well enough to fill a key place in the batting
order, so he's not a bench player.
Ron Gardenhire on Sunday apparently talked a great deal about wanting a bench of "interchangable" multi-position players, and cited the Tampa Bay Rays as a model.

The Rays do have a number of players who play all over. Ben Zobrist, for example, has started games at every position except pitcher and catcher in his eight years with Tampa Bay. Last year Zobrist started 117 games at second base, 26 in right field and 11 at shortstop — and switched positions multiple times mid game.

Sean Rodriguez is another Swiss utility knife of a player: In 2013, he started 30 games in left field, 17 at first base, five in right, three at short, one at second. In 2012, it was 42 at short, 27 at third, 17 at second. Rodriguez, like Zobrist, has started games at seven different positions for the Rays (four seasons).

But the thing is: These guys play. Zobrist gets more than 600 plate appearances a season. Rodriguez is more of a bench guy, but he averages well over 100 games a year.

Zobrist has made two All-Star teams and been on Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. His versatility may be his calling card, but what makes his versatility valuable is that he hits enough to be in the lineup — and not only that, but in the top half of the lineup. Rodriguez isn't as good a hitter, but he does enough at the plate to play at least half the time.

Gardenhire spent a big part of spring training running Eduardo Escobar and Jason Bartlett and Chris Herrmann all over the field. One of those guys (probably Escobar) will be on the Opening Day roster. (Herrmann has already been sent back to the minors.)

The thing is, Escobar won't be in the starting lineup at any of his multiple positions on March 31. Zobrist will, and Rodriguez might.

Gardenhire's desire for interchangeable parts is as a security blanket for injuries; his benches are generally guys waiting for somebody in the lineup to get hurt.

Joe Maddon, Gardenhire's Tampa Bay counterpart, is looking for matchup advantages. Maddon uses the versatility of Zobrist (a switch-hitter) and Rodriguez (right-handed hitter) to enable complex, multi-level platoons, much as Casey Stengel did with the Yankees of the 1950s.

I don't think any of Gardy's potential "interchangable parts" hit well enough to fit the Maddon model.

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