Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has managed to have some good fun with the local media in Tampa Bay by calling the playing time situation at second base for his team a “quadtoon” with Ryan Roberts, Kelly Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, and Ben Zobrist all a part of a four-way rotation at the position. While it’s an excellent word from sport’s most creative and personable skipper, it’s a simple way to explain the complex situation he faces to manage a group of players who appear to have more flexibility than ability (Zobrist excluded, obviously). But this is a challenge that has a great upside, and Joe Maddon is the perfect manager to earn that reward in 2013.
Maddon has never had an issue trying new things, and he loves having players he can move and shift to suit his defensive and offensive preferences for any given game. And while all of the players in the quadtoon are technically second basemen, none of them are cemented into the position and unable to contribute in other ways. That’s where Maddon’s genius can turn this potential logjam into a strength for the Rays. Let’s consider the benefits player by player.
Ben Zobrist is the best player of the bunch at second base, but Maddon does not want to tie him down to one spot on the diamond. His ridiculous flexibility will be great for a team with plenty of role players, as he can fill in for players facing bad matchups on any given night. For example, even if James Loney is the Rays’ starter at first base, if a tough lefty was the starter for the opponent that same night, Zobrist could move to first, and Zobrist will also wind up seeing quite a bit of time in right field while also backing up shortstop. The Rays super-utility man will likely assume the same role in 2013, and therefore remains the part of the quadtoon Maddon knows he can rely on, but doesn’t have to if a player we’ll talk about below hits his way into more time. He’s like the answers to the homework buried in the back of the textbook: he’s there if you can’t figure it out by any other means, but sometimes there’s no need. Whether Zobrist sees the bulk of his starts at second base or elsewhere, he’s going to be a central piece to the Rays’ 2013 effort as a great hitter and a player Joe Maddon can rely on to be excellent defensively no matter where he puts him.
Sean Rodriguez figures to play a similar role as Zobrist as a super-utility guy, something he has become acclimated to under Joe Maddon. Rodiguez doesn’t have the same skillset as Zobrist at the plate or in the field, but he is able to play any infield position fairly well and provides an excellent end of the bench option for the Rays in 2013. He’s the girl that you don’t really want to go to prom with, but you might fall back on if other options don’t work out. Nothing against Sean, I quite like him, but he’s certainly the fallback option in the quadtoon and the player who could be caught with the short end of the straw.
Ryan Roberts has not played a position other than second and third on any sort of regular basis for years, and at this point in his career, it might be for good reason. He’s a more than capable defender at second base, and decent enough at third base. From an offensive perspective, he figures to step up to the plate against lefties, who he has a much better OPS against. He could be an option to spell Evan Longoria at third as the Rays put Longoria on a somewhat conservative schedule in an attempt to keep him healthy, and Roberts could also play a good amount of games at second as a key contributor to the quadtoon. As a player who slammed 19 homers and stole 18 bases just two years ago, he’s certainly a player with ability to work his way into more time.
Kelly Johnson is the wild card in the quadtoon, and he’s the one who could have a big impact on the way the rotation pans out. He’s a lefty with good power who has historically hit well against lefties and righties, but in recent years he has seen a gulf of 100 points worth of OPS between his performance against different handed pitchers, growing to prefer righties as a traditional lefty masher should. He’s a former outfielder who showed some promise defensively at that position, but moved to second to fill a more pressing need for the Braves. He has since posted decent defensive performances, if slightly inconsistent, but overall he’s about average. He saw a sharp decline in his defense in 2012, but the surroundings in Toronto could have something to do with that. Johnson told 620 WDAE in Tampa that he much preferred the dirt infield of the Trop, and that the atmosphere was more like his time in Arizona, where he posted some of his most impressive defensive metrics. So if Johnson is able to hit well enough against both lefties and righties (batting average around .250 with 20ish homeruns, double-digit steals, and decent patience at the plate) and show he can play defense like he did for the Diamondbacks, the quadtoon could quickly shift to a dictatorship. Despite playing exclusively second base the last six years, though, Johnson is looking to see more time all-around the field in 2013 and if another member of the quadtoon performs well defensively at second, Johnson could shift back into an outfield role even if he’s hitting. Quadtoon or not, Johnson has the ability to be a key part of the Rays’ lineup. However, if he strikes out like he has for the past three years and shows a continued decline in production, he’ll be nothing more than a role player at a position with more consistent options.
There are gems to be found in the rough here. Zobrist’s flexibility is available to Maddon if the other second basemen can’t play the position well enough. Roberts and Johnson have both shown they’re capable of a decent amount of power and speed, and could provide good defense at the position as well. And Rodriguez provides the insurance plan for any of the aforementioned. With all four players potentially seeing time primarily at second base even while also seeing time at other positions, Joe Maddon is going to have to stay on his toes giving everyone the right amount of starts. But if everyone can hit the way they’re capable at the plate, everything will work itself out as the Rays will be in a situation they’ve longed to be in for years: having too many quality hitters and no place to put all of them. So will Joe Maddon be able to negotiate the quadtoon properly in 2013 and get everyone going strong? Or will the Rays be forced to rely upon Zobrist at second base and be left with a “tritoon” of backups?