The Rays have always been big on utility guys. It makes sense the way Joe Maddon makes lineup moves. Match-ups and days off are particularly important and having a player who can fill in for multiple players in your starting lineup is extremely important. Being a utility player isn’t the easiest job in baseball. You never know where or when you are going to play. It’s a lot easier to get in a rhythm and work through slumps when you know the manager is going to pencil in your name at one position every night. It is awfully hard to find players who do it well season after season.
The trend for the Rays started with Ben Zobrist. Zobrist, who came over from the Astros eight years ago as part of the Aubrey Huff deal, wasn’t a top-flight prospect but he was a good athlete and a switch-hitter. He had been a shortstop in the minors and that’s how the Rays used him the first two years. But after he had failed to hit enough to secure a starting shortstop job, the Rays started using him at a number of positions in 2008 and wherever they put him, he got the job done. From 2008 to 2010, he only made 11 errors despite playing seven positions, and of course he eventually broke through at the plate, blossoming into one of the Rays’ best hitters.
The irony of Zobrist’s success as a super-utility player is that it has earned him additional stablity. Zobrist is pretty much of an everyday second baseman these days so they handed the utility job over to Sean Rodriguez. Rodriguez who is a second baseman by trade, is also a good athlete who played shortstop in the minor leagues. In his six years in the major leagues between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Rays, Rodriguez has also played seven positions. The problem is that Rodriguez does not seem to have grown with the job. He’s not a particularly good shortstop or third base–it stood out that when Evan Longoria had to DH, Kelly Johnson played third base for the first time in his major league career rather than have Rodriguez play there. He can’t hit right handed pitching well, which limits when he can play, and while he is stronger against lefties, he is closer to average than impressive. Between his deficiencies at the plate and in the field, Rodriguez ended up as a platoon left fielder and first baseman in 2013, a far cry from a super-utility player. He still has a role on the Rays, but it seems clear that the Rays will have to find another player as they hope to replicate the role that Zobrist played in 2008. Could Willie Bloomquist be that player?
Bloomquist’s name may ring a bell after he played with the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals from 2002 to 2010. The last three years, though, he has really flown under the radar as he moved onto to the Cincinnati Reds briefly and then the Arizona Diamondbacks for the last three years. Bloomquist is another a seven-position player with 329 games in the outfield, 132 at third base, 282 at shortstop, 123 at second base and 37 at first base. He fields most positions well and, while he is not a great defender anywhere like Zobrist is, you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable if he was playing any of those positions (except for maybe centerfield) for a solid stretch of time.
Bloomquist is serviceable enough defensively to spell Yunel Escobar at shortstop, Evan Longoria at third base, or even Zobrist at second base, and he hits enough to profile as a backup at any of those positions. He lacks power, but he has a .271/.320/.346 slash line over his career (80 OPS+) including an .285/.322/.370 line (88 OPS+) the last three years, and has not hit below .265 in the last seven years. He’s a strong hitter against lefties, managing a .764 OPS against them in 363 plate appearances the last four years, and he also had a decent .698 OPS in 334 PA’s against righties the last two years. Bloomquist is not a great basestealer anymore, but he does provide additional value as a strong baserunner. Bloomquist’s reputation as a strong clubhouse presence certainly doesn’t hurt either. A utility player helps so much more when you can start him against both righties and lefties and be assured that he can provide solid performance. Bloomquist can do just that.
As recently as 2012, Willie Bloomquist made 338 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks, starting 61 games at shortstop along with a spattering of games elsewhere on the field. With Joe Maddon using his creative lineup card-making to the fullest extent, the Rays can get him that many plate appearances again and it could be a great arrangement for both sides. Bloomquist has never made even $2 million in a season, and with him coming off an injury-riddled year, they might be able to get him in the $1 to $1.5 million range on a one-year deal. Bloomquist’s price only emphasizes even more how good of a fit he is for the Rays. Expect the Rays to look into him heavily this offseason and don’t be surprised if Bloomquist is a Ray by the time spring training comes around.