Can Zorilla Overtake the Gabe connection?
Chris O’Meara / AP
Wow, No Tampa Bay Rays baseball until 10 pm tonight. I am not sure what I am going to do with myself because the shows I want to watch also come on at 10 pm. Maybe a split screen will work, but then I might get confused and think that Tommy Gavin ( Denis Leary ) is playing DH for the Rays. Sorry, I am not going to get confused by that, but there are some thing that recently have hit the papers, internet and also the radio waves that have me scratching my head a bit. They might not matter to 3/4’s of the country, but they matter to us down here in Rays-ville.
I mean we have a few questions, and I am thinking of putting on my special World Series game used Rays cap and try and figure out some of the possible answers. I think I am going to play on my mind’s thought right now and throw out a few examples and also maybe a suggestion as to our outfield situation and see what bubbles up to the surface here. So I am about to pop the old World Series cap given to me off the head of a Rays back-up and see what transpires, or even communicates itself to my little mind. They say that objects like this can store up energy and stored thoughts, hopefully they have garnered some baseball thoughts that can help me evolve this problem into a solution,or at least a wishful thought.
Let’s get into the meat of this right field outfield quagmire. We might have a more of a problem if B J Upton’s bum quad does need more down time. But hopefully we will not have to again do the Curly Shuffle to put the Two Gabes’ out there at the same time. I want to go on record as telling everyone that the Two Gabe’s can not play in the field at the same time. I think they both have ample ability to play in an MLB outfield, but with them both out there it opens a huge gaping wound in the Rays speed and agility in the center field and right side of the stadium. If Upton is down for any length of time, this three-headed monster will have to adjust and put a member of it into center field for awhile. But which one of the three Amigos would make the best fit if this situation rears its ugly head?
If you even saw an inning of the game on Sunday, you saw the massive drop off of even closing range speed on hard hit fly balls even into the shallow gaps in the outfield. Combine that with neither of them wanting to shout out, or even call balls in the air, and you get both of them falling to the turf ala Rays 1999-style. The good thing in all of that is that Gabe Kapler did catch the ball and it did not dribble to the wall or fall from his mitt after the collision. But can we forget the base running mishaps by both of the Gabes’ this year that have cost this team runs. I know we are going to be super aggressive as a team this year, but to openly show your lack of concentration in plays in scoring position actually puts you in a bad light. They were moves that defied logic, but they will end up on someone’s Rays gag reel this season.
Both Gabe has their positives. Kapler brings an energy and a leadership that will spark the Rays they way Eric Hinske did in 2008. But he has lost a step or two from the Kapler that used to fling his body everywhere in the Boston outfield years ago in the Trop. But his bat might be waking up, and that would be a huge up-side for the Rays. I will never question his commitment to this team, but he has to also finally admit to himself he is not the same player and has limitations now. But he is a good outfielder, but his arm and his closing speed on fly balls had dropped off in the last few years. He is not a liability as long as his average is creeping towards the Mendoza Line and above.
Now on to Gabe Gross. There is no question in my mind that he can, and will make a difference in this right field. The problem right now is that he seems to be a bit confused as to his role. He knows he is the swing guy on this platoon, but he also seems to be looking over his shoulder for Ben Zobrist to maybe steal his thunder and job soon. That might actually happen at some point this season. For the last year Gross has been the rocket arm for the Rays getting outfield assists because the American League questioned his true arm strength, but after posting some impressing plays to gun down people like Ichiro at third base, his arm is a true asset to the Rays. But is his offensive number going to compare this year?
That is s huge question. Last season he matched the Rays single season record for Walk-off RBIs, with 3 for the year, including his first home run off a leftie ( Matt Thorton / Chicago White Sox). For him to remain a vital part of this Rays team he has to again spark that second set of the lineup and get his average going northbound. Fans are already calling for Matt Joyce from Triple-A to supplant one of the two Gabes’ in this offense. That day will come. I can see one of them either being DFA’d or even traded after June 1st, but the Rays have to stay with their choice for now. But unlike some teams, they also have another option in the outfield.
Mike Carlson / AP
Joe Maddon is crazy about Ben Zobrist as a player, person and as a plug-in anywhere in the field for the team. He has grown so much in the last year in the organization’s eyes as a utility player. But he is also beginning to grow out of that role and might make it difficult for the team to leave him off the field in 2009. Take for example his playing time early on here in 2009. He had made play after play in right field, including an outfield assist in his start in Baltimore. He is growing more confident and secure in the outfield for the Rays, even in center field. I would not be surprised if he get the starting nod tonight in Seattle if the team decides to rest Upton for another day or two. But it is not like Zobirst is a one-hit wonder, he has been building himself and his playing time up in the last two years because of his versatility and abilities.
He is the one guy on this squad, which includes the hidden talents of Willy Aybar that has gone unnoticed as a limited role player for the Rays. But no matter what you think of his playing talents on the field, his hitting ability has gone through the roof since his 2007 days for the Rays. In that season he hit .158 in less than 100 at bats for the team. And in that time he only hit 3 extra base hits, which included a single home run. But after an injury in Spring Training in 2008, it seemed that Zobrist finally came into himself since we got him in that trade in Houston that also brought us pitcher Mitch Talbot, and jettisoned Aubrey Huff to the Astros. We forget he spent only 18 games in Triple-A before the Rays brought him up in 2006. But between then and now he has grown leaps and bounds, especially at the plate.
If you take 2008 as his break-out year in the eyes of the Rays, you might be correct. He had been high on their radar for several years, but showed an extra gear in 2008 when he finally came up for good and hit .252 for the season in 62 games. But that is not the stat that impressed and also endeared him to Rays Manager Joe Maddon. Before 2008, he was basically only thought about in the infield situation and roles, but in that year he blossomed out into the grasses of the outfield and made his mark bigger on the team. He might have only had one outfield assist compared to Gross’s five, but it was the quality of play that inspired Maddon and his staff to give him more time out there. But if it was not his extreme improvement in his outfield play, his bat might have been the deciding factor.
In 2008, his bat came alive. His .253 average might not show this fact, but his extra power and also ability to cause some chaos on the base paths did not go unnoticed by the team. He made 13 starts in the outfield in 2008, which was on surpassed by his 32 games at shortstop during Jason Bartlett’s injury. He had made his name a force in the outfield discussions for the Rays. His bat came out of nowhere this year and stuck in the minds of Rays fans and coaches. He hit two Grand Slams, the first in Baltimore on August 29th and another in Yankee Stadium on September 13th in the nightcap of a doubleheader. And add on his 12 homers in 2008 came on only 198 plate appearances.
The Rays had found a bench power option who could also play every day in the outfield. But Zobrist put the finishing touches on 2008 by hitting three homers in the season ending series in Detroit. So let’s just pop out his finishing numbers for a second here, 12 homers, 30 RBI’s and 25 walks in less than 200 plate appearances. Tampa Bay had finally found their hidden gem, and their outfield ” can do” guy.
And his 2008 is beginning to look like another added chapter to this great story. We have only played in 13 games, but already Zobrist has appeared in 9 contests and gone to the plate 26 times for the Rays. He is boasting a .308 average with 5 extra base hits, three of them for homers. His 9 RBI’s is currently tied for 26th in the American League, and he is a back-up player. So you can probably read my mind here on the future of Zobrist with the Rays. My only concern right now is if we do move him into a more constant role in the outfield, will be leave the infield vulnerable to injury or even understaffed. ( Hint: We currently have Adam Kennedy at Triple-A )
Why not play Zobrist in any spot where you need a bat and an able player. Seriously, players have made great careers having the versatility and abilities of Zobrist’s style. He is grounded, confident and totally committed to doing things “The Rays Way.” If you ever see the camera panning the dugout, he is always up near the coaches probably easedropping on their conversations to learn more and more about the way they want this team to run on all its cylinders. I am thinking he might just be that extra gear, or even the NO2 that could move this team upward this year. So you have to ask yourself if he could fit into this platoon method that the team is trying to institute in right field this year.
I actually think he is a huge upgrade over the current right field players, and could supplant either of them in a heartbeat. He has shown the effort and the stamina to dive for balls, make the difficult play, and proved himself at the plate. Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention above that he hit his third Grand Slam last week against the White Sox as a pinch-hitter. You want to talk about pressure situation……there is your kettle banging moment. But in the end, it is not my decision or any other bloggers as to the future of Zobrist. But here is something most people have forgotten about him.
He is totally inter-changeable wit
h either Gross or Kapler. He can play, and has proven it in 2009. Oh, and forget all that rightie-leftie match-up garbage with him. He is a switch hitter who is plowing the ball at a .400 clip from the left side this season, with an .800 Slugging Percentage so far this year. Right field was a main concern of the Rays before Spring Training. They gave Joyce every chance to change their minds, and also saw some great things for the future in his 5 games with the team before getting moved to Triple-A. But my choice for an everyday right fielder is no secret. I will give either of the Gabe connection some more time to show their want and desire to stay here, but a decision will be made at some point this year concerning them, why not make it early so they can hook onto another team.
Joyce might be the future, but Zobrist is making a huge play to be the present guy to bring this team some needed wins and offensive moments based on his offensive tear in 2008. Can Gross’s .136 average with no extra bases and a lone RBI be the key to the team’s ultimate decision. Or could Kapler’s .173, with only 3 doubles be his ticket to the bench. The Rays are in a pickle offensively right now. They are hitting .266 as a team with a league leading 109 strikeouts. Could the injection of some positive Zobrist energy and play be the ticket, or will the current tandem, who went 2 for 13 in the recent White Sox series, with no RBI’s or runs scored for the Rays. Oh, by the way, Zobrist went 4 for 6 , with 6 RBI’s in that series. Can the choice be any easier right now?