Utility Players and the Rays


It seems like everyone on the Rays can play everywhere. You have Ben Zobrist, who’s a plus defender at second base and right field in addition to his nice bat. There’s Sean Rodriguez, and Elliot Johnson all on the big league club the past few years. The Rays signed Jeff Keppinger this offseason and also invited Will Rhymes and others to camp as a non-roster invitees. They have unconventional utilityman Stephen Vogt making his way methodically through the minors and more conventional guys like Tyler Bortnick trudging towards the big leagues as well. They taught top shortstop prospect Tim Beckham to play second base in spring training (even though they claim he’s still a shortstop) and some of their other top prospects will undoubtedly learn to play multiple positions as well. Is there something about the Rays and utility players?

There were 200 players in the major leagues who played at least three positions excluding DH in 2011. Just 5 of those players (2.5%) were Tampa Bay Rays, less than their fair share among the 30 MLB teams. 2 of the players who played at least 4 positions were Tampa Bay Rays (3.6%), a little bit higher than usual but nothing particularly notable. But there were obscure things that stood out. Ben Zobrist was the only player in baseball who played 100 games at an infield position other than first base who also played at least 20 games in the outfield (there were no primary outfielders who played any position other than first base either). Elliot Johnson was the only player in baseball who played at least 30 games at shortstop and played in centerfield (he also played left field and second base). Sean Rodriguez was the only player in baseball who started 40 games at both shortstop and second base for the same team. And Sam Fuld was the only player in baseball to come into a game, warm up as a pitcher, and then give way to another pitcher as he moved to another position. That maneuver by Joe Maddon led to a rule change forbidding teams to do just that (now Fuld would have had to face at least one batter).  The Rays don’t really have that many utility players. But they maximize the efficiency of their roster by using their players in unique ways. You never know how Joe Maddon is going to use his players, and he has the personnel to do eccentric things that help the team. It may seem crazy that the Rays bring all these guys to camp, but Joe Maddon and the Rays know what they’re doing. At the end of the day, these utility players give Rays one of the most versatile and efficient rosters in baseball.