Yunel Escobar went down with a hamstring injury and the Rays had to decide how to replace him. Their options: the player who had started for them at shortstop for most of the last two years, Sean Rodriguez, and a player who hadn’t played shortstop regularly in four years before returning there at the end of 2012. If it was a long-term injury, Zobrist would have to be the choice. Rodriguez has gotten off to a hot start to 2013, managing a .294/.368/.471 line in 39 plate appearances, but the Rays had never been sold that he would hit enough to be a starting shortstop, with the facts that he’s a good but not great defender at the position and that the Rays are a team desperate for hitting only emphasizing that more. But this probably was going to be a one-week injury maximum, so why get Zobrist, who the Rays are depending on to be a stabilizing force in their lineup, out of his comfort zone adjusting to a different position when it was only going to be for a short while? Joe Maddon told reporters his rationale.
"“At the end of last season we all thought that Ben did a nice job and we all wanted to stay with that,” Maddon said. “Sean’s doing a nice job in the other role we put him in, so I don’t want to mess that up now.”"
Ben Zobrist has become known as one of the most selfless players in baseball given the way he has blossomed into one of the top hitters in baseball yet has been willing to move around the field like a utility player. Most of the star players in baseball could probably play multiple positions if they tried, but their all-around title gives them a sense of entitlement and their teams certainly won’t argue that deserve to stay at the position where they’re most comfortable. Zobrist is the exact opposite, being a player who had been a decent shortstop prospect for the Astros and Rays but fell apart after arriving in the major leagues and had to adjust to a utility role. Only after he arrived in the major leagues did Zobrist establish himself as a topflight hitter, and by then he had developed his incredible versatility and it would have been a waste for him not to utilize it. But there has to be a limit to that, right? Here’s a quote from Zobrist about his readiness to play shortstop.
"“When I went there (Wednesday) I didn’t feel terribly uncomfortable,” Zobrist said. “I expect it to feel pretty normal.”"
Usually that would be a place where the player would say “I feel great there” or something along those lines. Instead, Zobrist “didn’t feel terribly uncomfortable.” That doesn’t raise a red flag, but at the same time, are the Rays taking Zobrist out of his comfort zone and Zobrist is simply too selfless to resist? Escobar’s injury was only going to last a few days. Why not put Sean Rodriguez at shortstop just for that brief stretch of time and keep Zobrist splitting time between second base and right field?
The past two years, Sean Rodriguez’s Ultimate Zone Rating has been -2.4 in 768.2 defensive innings. That’s not so bad at all, but for a player who the Rays can’t trust to hit, if he’s slightly below-average defensively it just makes an iffy situation worse. Watching Rodriguez defensively (and looking at the components of his UZR score and where his errors have come), he moves extremely well but has just decent hands and doesn’t have the best arm. He shines at second base and has looked good this season at first base, but shortstop just isn’t the best position for him given his defensive skill-set. But given that the Rays aren’t even trusting him to play there for just a few days, does that mean that the Rays have given up on Rodriguez playing shortstop for any extended period of time?
As we mentioned above, Rodriguez has gotten off to a great to 2013, and given that he hasn’t hit at all the last two years, the Rays might as well do what they can to keep his rhythm going and see if this can last at least to some extent moving forward. And that doesn’t just have to do with Rodriguez’s defensive position, but also his playing time considerations. It has helped Rodriguez that 26 of his 39 plate appearances have come against left-handed pitching as a right-handed hitter. If Rodriguez were to become the Rays’ everyday shortstop even for a few days, he would face more right-handed pitching, putting him in position to fail and possibly frustrating him enough that his great run of late could come to a quick and unceremonious end. And if the Rays were to keep sitting Rodriguez against right-handed pitching, they would have to put Zobrist at shortstop when he was on the bench anyway, so the simplest solution was going to be just playing Zobrist at shortstop on an everyday basis.
The situation created by this Yunel Escobar injury has prompted several interesting questions regarding the Rays and how they will utilize Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez moving forward. But the bottom line here is that Rodriguez not playing shortstop has little to do with his capability defensively at the position and more with his hot start at the plate and Zobrist playing shortstop is less of a statement on him being almost too much of a team player and more because the Rays knows he would be fine there and are trying to keep a lesser player in Rodriguez comfortable. Just like it had been the case with Zobrist, it will be up to Rodriguez’s performance at the plate to determine whether Rodriguez will ever get a crack at a starting role again. Until then, though, the Rays are best off keeping Rodriguez right where he is and seeing what he can do.