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Tampa Bay Rays: Daniel Robertson Eyes Shortstop Opening

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As a player drafted out of high school in 2012, Daniel Robertson is still a year away from being eligible for the Rule 5 Draft and needing to be protected on the 40-man roster. However, that isn’t nearly enough–he wants to be the Tampa Bay Rays’ starting shortstop by then. Robertson began the next step in his quest to take the position sooner rather than later on Tuesday as he went 1 for 3 with 2 walks and a run scored in his first Arizona Fall League game for the Mesa Solar Sox in 2015. His regular season was tough, but the Rays are nearly as optimistic as Robertson himself is about his future.

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Robertson is in Mesa for the second straight autumn because a broken hamate bone in his left wrist halted his strong season at Double-A for two months, from early June to the beginning of August. It also likely prevented Robertson from seeing his first Triple-A time. Overall, Robertson hit to a .274/.363/.415 line in 347 regular season plate appearances for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits and was their second-best hitter in terms of OPS in their four postseason games. He failed to match his 2014 power output from the hitter-friendly California League, but he continued to show the tremendous plate discipline that stands out at a defense-heavy position like shortstop.

At this point, scouts are convinced that Daniel Robertson will hit. We will see how much power he provides, whether he will end up with closer to 10 home runs per season or 20, but he will hit for a good average and get on base. He will mash left-handed pitching and be more than capable against righties. And, to top it all off, he will draw his walks while limiting the strikeouts. The centerpiece of the Ben Zobrist trade has the ability to be a useful big league player for the Rays for years to come. The most questionable part of his profile, though, may be his defense.

Robertson will play some second base in the Arizona Fall League, and that is a little bit strange considering Logan Forsythe appears to have entrenched himself in the keystone for the Tampa Bay Rays. For the Triple-A Durham Bulls, Robertson will also wind up playing shortstop almost exclusively with fellow prospect Ryan Brett serving as his double play partner. We know that the Rays love versatility, but there is something more behind Robertson playing second base than that. The Rays view him as a shortstop, but they at least have to acknowledge the possibility that he can’t remain there.

Robertson has great hands, and that gives you confidence. He won’t be error-prone and will do an especially good job at the balls hit right at him. On the other hand, Robertson doesn’t have the speed of your typical shortstop and a good first step still leaves him with below-average defensive range. His arm is good enough for the routine plays but makes the spectacular ones unlikely to occur too often. Maybe Robertson can be an average defender, but it isn’t encouraging that he has a real chance of being worse and little to no chance of being better than that. He would be fine at second base, but the Rays need him at shortstop.

That being said, this isn’t a Rays team that has been teeming with Gold Glove candidates at short. Asdrubal Cabrera was halfway-decent at the position this season–the defensive metrics didn’t buy his supposed breakthrough–while Yunel Escobar was the worst defensive shortstop in baseball in 2014. Tim Beckham wasn’t particularly impressive either in 2015 while Nick Franklin‘s glovework certainly didn’t catch anyone’s eye in a good way.

Given the Rays’ recent history and current candidates at shortstop, there is every reason to believe that Robertson will get a chance at the position if he hits. Luckily, as we talked about above, he is expected to do quite well at the plate and overshadow any real or perceived defensive deficiencies. First he needs to conquer Triple-A, and we will have to see whether that takes a couple of months or most of the season. Which path the Rays believe he will follow will also affect whether they acquire an established shortstop this offseason or go with a stopgap knowing that Robertson isn’t far away.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: Can Phillies Help Solve Power Outage?

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