The keystone position is arguably one of the most overlooked spots on the baseball field. It is the position where shortstops with bad arms or range go to play. But today the position has become more important to teams as it is now a high offensive spot on the diamond. Let’s look at how the Tampa Bay Rays stack for 2014 at second base.
Ben Zobrist– There is no question that the Rays will pick up the $7 million option they have on Zobrist for 2014. Zobrist’s contract may be the best in baseball, and the Rays have gotten more out of him than they ever could have hoped. But one of Zobrist’s major calling cards, his versatility, may have finally taken a step back. After rotating between right field, shortstop, and second base in 2012, he finished this season as the Rays’ everyday second baseman, starting their 125 times as Yunel Escobar and Wil Myers solidified their respective positions. It might still be asked of Zobrist to play another spot here or there, but he might be able to pick one glove now (unlike Skip Schumaker). Pending another injury to Escobar or a lack of depth in the OF, Zobrist will be the everyday second baseman in 2014. Even if his days as a super-utility player appear to be over, though, Zobrist remains a critical member of the Rays both at the plate and in the field. Now that he is finally settled down at the keystone, maybe he will finally get his due as one of the best second baseman in baseball.
Kelly Johnson– What looked like a smart move to begin the year promptly turned semi-sour towards the end. In the first half, Johnson hit to a .244/.320/.442 line with 13 homers and 44 RBI, but the second half saw him slip to .213/.267/.333 line and saw his playing time diminish significantly in favor of David DeJesus and Delmon Young towards the end of the season. After Johnson agreed to a one-year, $2.45 million contract with the Rays last offseason, neither side has brought up Kelly coming back for 2013. However, considering he played LF, 3B, 2B, and 1B and provided average defense at all of them (besides LF) it was a successful contract for Friedman and the team, especially if you view him as more of a backup than a starting player. Johnson will likely test the market, but if no offers for a starting role come, Johnson could head back to the team that values his newfound versatility the most.
Tim Beckham– Beckham was the first player from the Rays’ 2008 Draft to appear in a game for the big league club. That was predictable from the start–but we did not think he would be surfacing five years later under these circumstances. Nevertheless, while he is not the player Tampa Bay hoped for at 1:1 in 2008, he will still carve out a role at the big league level in some capacity. Beckham’s range and hands ability don’t cut it for everyday work at SS, but he has played well defensively at second base and expect the Rays to teach him more positions as well. Beckham is starting to hit better, working better counts and showing more power, and he also could help the big league team with his solid speed. The ultimate question will be how well his bat develops–his career batting line of .266/.332/.381 doesn’t inspire confidence. Beckham will be 24 in January and it remains to be seen whether he will get any better than he is now. Beckham should get an opportunity for playing time in spring training, but it is anyone’s guess where he actually starts the season.
Free Agent Options
Robinson Cano– Robinson Cano is a really good player. He will not be wearing a Rays uniform next season.
Omar Infante– One of the most under rated second basemen in the game (might be that playing in Miami thing), Infante will be a free agent at the age of 32 in December. His best attribute is his hitting ability as he has never hit below .271 in a full season since 2005 and he also makes a lot of contact and plays a solid defensive second base. Although he has settled in at second base, Infante did show strong defense all over the field in the past, and you know the Rays would make full use of his versatility. The downsides with him, though, are that he doesn’t take walks, has little power, and missed over a month in July with a sprained ankle. Detroit is considering a qualifying offer for him, but $14M would be a huge increase from the 2-year, $8M contract he received with Miami. If the Tigers makes the qualifying offer, it would be a steep price to give up the first-round draft pick. If not, Infante could get the second highest contract behind Cano, and while we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars less, that would likely be too much for the Rays.
Brian Roberts– A lifetime Oriole, Roberts is hitting free agency for the first time in his 12 year career. But the Brian Roberts of today is almost a shell of what has been a career sadly ruined by multiple injuries. In 2010, he missed 91 games with an abdomen strain. He was out most of 2011 and half of 2012 with concussion like symptoms. When he did return in 2012 he did not last long as he had to get surgery for his right hip to miss the rest of 2012. Then in 2013, he missed 79 games due to surgery in his right thigh and played in 77 games, which was depressingly his most since 2009. His trademark speed and extra-base power is gone and his defense is below average at 2B. He might go back to Baltimore because the free-agent market will be weary of his past injuries and ineffectiveness. Luke Scott was another Oriole coming off an injury plagued year that the Rays signed, but with Roberts, the injury problems have been going on for years, and expect them to stay away.
Ramon Santiago– If the Rays find themselves looking for a backup second baseman, Santiago could be an interesting choice. A switch-hitting infielder, Santiago doesn’t inspire fear from either side of the plate but stands out for his defense. A player that can play all over the infield and impress with his glovework is valuable to any team, but you know the Rays value that skill-set even more. Santiago made $2.1M in Detroit and should not require any more than that to be signed in free agency. If the Rays do not bring back Kelly Johnson, Santiago would represent a very different option but still one that would be heavily considered.
Alexi Casilla– Yet another switch-hitting glove-first infielder, Casilla spent 2013 with Baltimore after being claimed on waivers from Minnesota. Casilla is also a weak hitter, but he adds an additional dimension to his game: speed. Casilla has stolen an incredible 80 out of 91 bases in his career (87.9%) an dcould provide value as not just a defensive replacement, but a pinch-runner. Casilla played second base exclusively for Baltimore, but that wasn’t so much his fault as there was an All-Star in J.J. Hardy playing shortstop every day. The O’s are likely to decline his $3 million team option and instead pay him $200K to leave and go somewhere else. Five years younger than Santiago with more athleticism, Casilla could be in line for a slightly bigger payday, but he is another player the Rays could pursue.
Skip Schumaker– The former Cardinal and Dodger will be 34 come 2014 and one has to wonder if he was overexposed this season in LA. While Schumaker is still a platoon player (only 60PA vs LHP compared to 296 vs RHP in 2013), his versatility has proven valuable to those clubs over his career. An outfielder for most of his career, the Cardinals moved Skip to second base to give him the opportunity to play every day while Colby Rasmus became the new everyday centerfielder. That move continues to pay dividends as Schumaker’s career progresseses. Schumaker can play second base and all three outfield spots which makes him an interesting candidate for the Rays to sign. He also hits better than players like Santiago and Casilla and could be a definite candidate for starts against right-handed pitching. He also made just $1.5 million in 2013 with the Dodgers. Doesn’t that sound like a great fit? The issue, though, is that Schumaker’s ability to play the outfield may be outweighed by his inabilty to play the three infield positions other than second base. Kelly Johnson filled in a at third base while Evan Longoria dealt with planar fasciitis, and Schumaker would not be able to do that. And especially if the Rays bring back David DeJesus, Schumaker would not have much of a place on the roster. Schumaker may be a primary second basemen, but he fits with the Rays more as a platoon outfielder than a second baseman, and we will have to see whether that will be a need for the Rays this offseason.
Overall, the free-agent class for second basemen is fairly strong up top, but as you progress as it is mainly backup infielders or players on the wrong side of 30. That will not be much of a concern for the Rays as Zobrist is a fan and team favorite and should be manning the position for he next few years next few years. What is nice, though, is that if the right opportunity arises to sign a player like Infante or Roberts at a bargain price, though, Zobrist’s versatility would allow them to accommodate that player with Zobrist moving to the infield. In all probability, the Rays will be signing more of a backup type, but they will keep their options open as they hope to improve their team for next season. Who do you want the Rays to bring in?