With Sean Rodriguez going on paternity leave, Vince Belnome was called up to the Tampa Bay Rays’ roster for their game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday. He did not appear in the contest and has already been sent back down. But when the Rays needed an infielder to call up, Belnome was the first name that came to mind. That tells you everything that you need to know.
It was something of a surprise when the Rays added Vince Belnome to their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. After all, Belnome’s skill-set did not seem all that impressive. 5’11″ and 205 pounds, Belnome’s best characteristic is his plate discipline. For the Durham Bulls last season, he drew 84 walks against 109 strikeouts in 533 plate appearances. What else does Belnome do? He plays multiple positions, seeing time at third base, second base, and first base each of the last three years, but only at first base is he even an average defender. He does have some power to the gaps, but his power has disappeared in the upper minors–he has just 13 home runs in 836 Triple-A plate appearances. He is a left-handed hitter who has hit solidly against same-side pitchers the last few years, but he has also proven to be vulnerable to their breaking balls, something big league pitchers will only exploit further. What did the Rays see in Belnome that made him worth a 40-man roster spot? The answer: a little bit of everything.
Joe Maddon mixes up the Rays’ lineup every day to get everyone their playing time and put each player in position to succeed. He may have his “starting lineup,” but there is always plenty of variability involved. If a left-handed pitcher is on the mound, two of Sean Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe, and Brandon Guyer will replace David DeJesus and Matt Joyce. If someone needs a day off, we will see Rodriguez, Forsythe, and even Ben Zobrist playing all over the field. One issue the Rays have been facing, however, is players who are relatively one-dimensional. When you have four players–Joyce, DeJesus, Rodriguez, and Forsythe–who can only play against pitchers from one side and a fifth in Guyer who is an unknown quantity, that limits what Maddon can do. The Rays have defensive versatility, but there is really only one player on the team with versatility both at the plate and in field, and that is Ben Zobrist. The Rays are not expecting to find another Zobrist anytime soon, but what they do need is a player they can trust in a variety of situations. Vince Belnome can be that player.
Vince Belnome does not have the power to be a corner infield or the athleticism to be a regular second baseman. But that become almost entirely irrelevant when we realize how the Rays are going to use him. He will be a backup that can be very good against righties and just fine against lefties and can give several different players a day off. When he is on the bench, meanwhile, he will be not just a lefty pinch-hitter, but one the Rays do not have to fear leaving in even if the other team brings in a lefty. We are not idealizing Belnome. Pending a drastic turnaround, his likely upside is as a bench player for the Rays. But he can be extremely valuable in that role, especially on the team that knows best how to use players will his skills. Vince Belnome’s day on the Rays’ bench is only the start. We will see him again in September if not sooner, and expect him to be one of 25 on the Rays’ roster for years to come.