For the first time all season, I thought of Reid Brignac. The Rays were ahead 4-3 on Wednesday with 2 outs and the tying run on third base. After an 8-pitch at-bat, Jake McGee forced Jason Kipnis to hit a groundball up the middle. Elliot Johnson ranged over, reached out his glove, but the ball went under it and into the outfield tying the game and spurring an Indians rally that turned what had once been a 4-0 game in the Rays’ favor into a 10-6 loss.
Elliot Johnson is a second baseman. In his minor league career, he played 683 games at second base compared to just 101 at shortstop. Sean Rodriguez actually played 474 games as a shortstop in the minors compared to 175 at second base. One problem: he was never a starting shortstop in the minors after 2007. The Rays are loaded at second base on their big league team. You have Ben Zobrist, Jeff Keppinger, Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, and Brooks Conrad all with extensive professional experience there. At shortstop, Keppinger and Zobrist have the most experience, but neither has played as many as 15 games there since 2008. The Rays are left having players trying to fake shortstop. Sometimes they do so quite well, as we have seen Johnson and Rodriguez make some tremendous defensive plays, but the overall body of work simply isn’t there. The Rays don’t have a pure shortstop on the roster, and it has cost them big-time defensively.
Reid Brignac is the only answer on the Rays’ 40-man roster. He is the only real shortstop, with 650 minor league games and 181 major league games to his credit at the position. The Rays do have top shortstop prospects Tim Beckham and Hak-Ju Lee, but neither is ready for the big leagues. It’s either Brignac or the Rays will have to make a trade.
Reid Brignac was universally regarded as the Rays’ best defensive shortstop coming out of spring training. Brignac would provide defensive stability at a position where the Rays have had none all season. But can he hit at all? Brignac has managed just a .188/.223/.214 line in 100 big leagues games at 282 plate appearances the past two seasons. His OPS was .437 and his OPS+ was 26, a whopping 74% below the league average. Brignac does have in his favor the fact that in the big league season where he got the most plate appearances, he played decently. Back in 2010, Brignac posted a .256/.307/.385 line with 13 doubles, 8 homers, and 45 RBI in 113 games and 326 PAs. His OPS+ was 92, just 8% below average, which is fine considering his defense. But Brignac has done nothing offensively since then! Why should we possibly believe that he can be even a passable offensive player after the debacle at the plate we saw in 2011 and early in 2012?
After Brignac was sent down to the minors in April of 2012, he continued to be an offensive disaster. But Brignac has steadily improved each month. In April, his OPS was just .314 in 26 plate appearances with the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Then he upped it to .659 in May in 84 plate appearances. In 108 June PAs, his OPS was .697. And in July, he has broken out to a .826 OPS, posting a rock-solid .269/.345/.481 line. On the year, Brignac has posted a .226/.309/.366 line with 11 doubles, 7 homers, 34 RBI, and a 50-27 strikeout to walk ratio in 67 games and 277 plate appearances. That’s not great by any stretch, but at least he has put something together and has improved steadily throughout the year. And Brignac has been unlucky to have stats as bad as he does.
So far in 2012, Brignac has posted a 23.9% line drive percentage according to Minor League Central, 10th in the International League minimum 200 plate appearances. Just 2 players younger than Brignac are ahead of him. You have to go down to 23rd in the league to find a player with a lower batting average than Brignac. He has hit the ball hard, and even for some power as his .140 ISO is above the .134 league average. Combine that with his decent plate discipline (9.7% walk rate, 18.1% strikeout rate) and his season should be going a whole lot better than it has so far. Does this mean that Reid Brignac can be a good offensive player? Probably not. But if Brignac could manage just decent numbers in the big leagues, say a .230/.315/.370 line, his defense would make him a valuable player.
It seems likely that at some point this season, the Rays will call up Reid Brignac and give him one final chance to prove that he is a major league-caliber offensive player. Maybe they’ll do that and he will fall flat on his face again. But he has the ability to succeed, and with his stellar defense at shortstop, the Rays are rooting for him to do just that.