I am obsessed with “vintage Rays.” Your picture-perfect Rays player is lightning-fast, hits for .300 with 20-homer power, excels at getting on base, is super-athletic and is an excellent defender, can play multiple positions and play well everywhere, and never stops hustling and leads through his actions. We don’t find perfect players very often. But something the Rays have done in recent years is draft and acquire players who fit their team philosophy, players who are fast, have great character, and can play multiple positions, and hopefully do quite a bit more. The specific part of the Rays’ “vintage checklist” that stands out is versatility. A lot teams love speed, and every team prefers players who play hard and lead on the field. But no team in baseball unremittingly preaches versatility like the Rays do.
Evan Longoria gets all the fame, but the closest ever that the Rays have gotten to their ideal player is Ben Zobrist. In two and a half years in the Houston Astros organization, Ben Zobrist played 261 games, every one but 2 at shortstop. In 103 games in the Rays organization, Zobrist started at shortstop just 78 times, and since arriving in the big leagues, he has started at shortstop in just 115 of his 554 major league starts. After appearing in just 4 games at second base in the minor leagues and not a single game in the outfield, Zobrist has blossomed into a plus defender at both second base and right field in the major leagues. Zobrist is a good major league hitter with 20-homer and 45-double power and 20-steal speed, but he has been even more of an asset to the Rays thanks to his defense. Players like to picture themselves as being entrenched at one position. Position changes can lead to tension, whether with superstars like Hanley Ramirez or class acts like Michael Young. Yet Ben Zobrist has selflessly allowed the Rays to move up anywhere and everywhere, and that has allowed the Rays to maximize their lineup’s potential by starting Sean Rodriguez at second base in 2010 and Matt Joyce in right field in 2011. Ben Zobrist is a very talented baseball player. But his willingness and ability to play multiple positions without any qualms puts him a cut above.
Stars get a choice. Role players don’t. If you want to be able to remain in the major leagues, you have to be able to adapt to the times. The Rays feature several players like that, among them Sean Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson, and non-roster invitee Will Rhymes. Several minor league prospects such as Cole Figueroa and Tyler Bortnick also fit a similar profile. But what about Jeff Keppinger? An under-the-radar signing by the Rays this offseason, Keppinger has carved himself out a nice major league career as a decent hitting utility player that can play multiple positons and put up solid numbers in a starting role if necessary. What’s very interesting about Keppinger choosing to sign for the Rays (for 1.525 million dollars), is his role with the team. Keppinger has spent most of his career at second base, and he has also spent significant time at shortstop and third base. With Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist entrenched at third and short and Keppinger’s defense at short being absolutely horrific, Keppinger won’t get very many starts at those positions. He may end up getting the most starts in right field spelling Matt Joyce against tough lefties thanks to his .852 career OPS versus lefties as a right-handed hitter compared to .666 versus lefties. The total number of games Keppinger has played in right field between the majors and minors: 1. The Rays would have signed Keppinger if hadn’t been willing to play right field. Keppinger had to have other suitors, and it tells you something that the Rays requiring him to play right field didn’t deter him from signing with the Rays.
All this brings us to the player I had the Rays selecting in the first round of my mock 2012 MLB Draft over at the FanSided Network’s minor leagues blog, Seedlings to Stars. Here’s what I had to say about Klein Collins High School shortstop C.J. Hinojosa.
"Hinojosa is smooth defensively at shortstop, although his arm isn’t superlative. He could be a better fit at second base, but he does have the ability to play at least passably at short. Once you have Hinojosa able to play two positions, the possibilities become limitless. With his fluid defensive actions and good athleticism, Hinojosa could be the Rays’ next super-utilityman. At the plate, he has a nice line drive swing, making him a threat to be a .300 hitter, and despite a 5’11, 185 frame, he has nice power for his size and could be a 10-15 homer threat as he fills out. He’s also a good runner with nice instincts on the basepaths. In addition, Hinojosa is known for his competitiveness, leadership, and knowledge of the game of baseball. If Hinojosa is signable away from Texas, he’s just about a perfect fit for the Rays."
C.J. Hinojosa isn’t loaded with tools. He’s a plus pure hitter and he has nice motions defensively, but otherwise he’s pretty much average across the board, although his tools play up thanks to his great instincts and drive. What makes Hinojosa worth the 25th overall pick in the draft? The answer is the versatility factor. Hinojosa profiles as an above-average regular at second base and that would certainly help a team, but his ability to play all over the diamond not only makes him a more valuable player but makes the team around him better. The incredible versatility of several of their players give the Rays maximum roster flexibility and gives them the opportunity put their best team on the field, with less regard for positon. The Rays are all about team efficiency, and versatility gives them that and more.
The Rays love drafting for pure upside in the draft. Hinojosa has some nice upside, but not quite up to the level the Rays draft most of the time. But with his versatility, he provides another dimension: maximizing team ability. While players like Hinojosa might not be the flashiest picks, the upside they provides through both their own abilities and their capability to make their teams better makes them worth it. Don’t underestimate versatility.