Jason Bartlett = All Star
People have always looked to New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter as the symbol of what it takes to be a American League All-Star selection at that position. I mean the guy has the looks, the slick glove and the bat that always seems to hum at or above the .300 clip every season. For what seems like his entire career Jeter has had his name stenciled on the All-Star ballot, and been selected for the team based mostly on “what he can do for you in a pinch.”
And that is a great quality for your shortstop aka field general to have because consistent clutch performances earn you the big bucks and the true fans notice these moments. So can we honestly say that maybe the Yankees famed number 2 is going to have a bit of competition this season for that coveted All-Star nod? I think this year he might still make the All-Star roster, but I am hoping he is not the starting shortstop in the game. I have another name in mind, and I think the statistics not only back up my selection, but also convince you he is the man for the job this season, and maybe a few more in the near future.
When the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Jason Bartlett in late 2007 with the Minnesota Twins they knew what he could do on the field with a glove and a sharply hit missile to the hole. They coveted this player who could be the stop-gap in the middle of the left side of their defense. That he could be the energy cell needed to shore up a team that has never had such a highly skilled infielder in the 6-slot. So when he finally got on the field in Spring Training 2008, people were still a bit curious about this guy who made his Major League debut in 2004 and only hit .083 in eight games.
But soon they could see the slick skills and the fluid movement he had with the ball. He had a new second baseman, Akinora Iwamura, who was coming over from third base, and Bartlett made sure to make time every day to spend some quality time with Iwamura to get a better feeling for each other and get an internal bond and thought process going that would eventually click for the Rays. That is the mark of a truly professional shortstop. He made sure he had the bond with the one guy who could make or break this Rays defense for the team.
The names Bartlett and Iwamura were heard and seen a lot in boxscores and by radio and television announcers while completing double plays for the Rays.
The guy has been poetry in motion to Rays fans. Sure we had gotten shortstops before, heck we even had one standing behind Bartlett in centerfield in B J Upton, who was drafted out of High School as the Rays shortstop of the future. But the year progressed and Bartlett seemed to get stronger and stronger in the position.
His skill set has always been strong, but with a renewed confidence and a determination to help the Rays first hit the .500 mark, then get their first post season berth, Bartlett led the way by example. The fact that the Tampa Bay Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gave Bartlett the 2008 Team MVP award shocked some people, but if you really look at the feats and accomplishments of this first year Ray, you would see the game flowed through the 6-hole.
After the Rays were defeated in the World series by the Philadelphia Phillies, Bartlett went back home and began to make a transformation in his life. He got married, was blessed with his first kid ( a girl) and he also went through his first arbitration with the Rays getting a significant raise in pay ( $ 1.9 million) for the first time in his career. It seemed through all of this he had become more relaxed and focused when you saw or even spoke to him at the Rays Fan Fest in February 2009.
And that bode well for the team. Coming into Spring Training he had more security with Iwamura, and felt that he belonged here in Tampa Bay. He used that positive vibe to hit at a .327 clip for the spring. Showing leadership and more confidence he appeared in only 19 games, but left an impression upon fans of some upcoming power and offensive fireworks for 2009.
He started the season pretty much under the radar as Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena were leading the majors in their categories as he slowly slid higher and higher in the Batting Average ranks during April. He had kept his focus to be above the .300 mark most of the month and then had an explosive first part of may that skyrocketed him to his present .373 mark. That mark is currently leading the Major Leagues in hitting. Not bad for a guy who was a secondary piece of a trade.
But there is another part of his game that is starting to show significant improvement this season in Tampa Bay. Last season, Bartlett did not hit a home run until the last regular series of the year against his old team, the Minnesota Twins. In that series he only had one solo shot, but it did make an impression on Rays fans. Some of us wondered if he had the power we needed out of that spot, or if he was just hiding it right now. He hit another during the playoff run, but settled for only two moon shots during 2008.
But that was a curious stat to people who did check out his former statistics before the season started in 2008. Because in 2007, he had 5 homers and 43 RBI, both career highs at the time. We started to wonder if maybe he had peaked a year before he got here. But with the start of 2009, there was a feeling of renewed vigor in Bartlett. He quickly started his average skyward, and his home run power seemed to come out of no where. The guy currently has 7 home runs, most of them great shots and is on the way to having the best season of his career.
So why should Bartlett, who is showing offensive savvy get a All-Star nod? Well, offense has always been a key indicator for the voting people in who they might consider for the All-Star team. Hopefully Bartlett can move up from the fourth spot currently behind Toronto’s Marco Scutaro, who is having a banner year himself in 2009, and new comer Texas rookie Elvis Andrus. But Bartlett’s current vote tally of 233,482 is considerably behind the American League vote leader right now, Derek Jeter with 664,630.
So we know Bartlett has the offensive skills to merit the spot. Is his defense really that good for the Rays? Considering the team went from a middle of the pack defensive unit to one of the best in the game in 2oo8, what do you think? He has appeared in 44 games this season for the Rays and has help convert 19 double plays. Bartlett has 180 times so far in 2009 and has made 4 errors. His .978 Fielding Average is on par with his peers in the league right now. In close comparison, Jeter has 179 total chances and 2 errors and 21 double plays for a .987 Fielding Average.
So is Bartlett now a guy to be considered in the top tier of shortstops in the American League? I truly believe he is in the top 4 in the league. I also think he has not even begun to show his top potential yet in the field. Some of the plays he tries to make deep in the hole, or over near the second base bag are ones that most infielders watch go through to the outfield without an sign of remorse. Bartlett now seems to grimace each time a ball goes up the middle or is hit above him towards leftfield. He is shoeing that primary killer instinct right now that is key among the league’s best players.
The only killer to this right now is his injury he suffered last Sunday during the tenth inning against the Florida Marlins. In that inning Dan Ugglas was attempting to steal second base and Bartlett put his foot on the bag to make Uggla go towards the outside the bag, and Uggla came in and clipped him with his spikes on the ankle. After an MRI and the medical staff calling for him to sit a few days, Bartlett finally was open to sitting the letting it heal instead of trying to play on it and risk further damage.
But with him out of the lineup, you have seen a completely different feel to the Rays defense right now. It doesn’t seem to flow with grace and ease, but is rushed and seems a bit timid at times. It misses its field general, the guy to pump up the infielders and make the assignments for the infield. They miss that main cog in their machine. Bartlett recently told the St. Petersburg Times, “Part of me wants to be selfish and just get out there and keep playing,” Bartlett said. “But if I do that I could make it worse and be out two-to-three months as opposed to a week or so. “
But believe me, the effort and the want to play and help his team has not missed the eyesight of Rays Manager Joe Maddon. He knows that Bartlett wants to play and contribute to the team. His finishing out the game that Sunday was enough to attest to the toughness and spunk of his shortstop. But after a ankle sprain was diagnosed, the decision was easy for Maddon. Risk losing a key piece of your puzzle for a week or so, or maybe lose him along with Iwamura for the season. The decision was easy for Maddon.
“It’s really unfortunate because this young man is having an All-Star season right now,” Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times. “There’s no getting around that, and that’s not made up by his manager, that’s pretty much what’s going on. All facets of his game have been spectacular. And we need him back quickly. … He was voted our team MVP last season for a reason, and he’s playing even better this year than last year, on all fronts.” So you have to wonder after all that, does Bartlett have a chance to impress upon the American League All-Star Manager that he has what it takes to make the squad in 2009?
I am hoping that the fans and the players see his involvement and his accomplishments both in the second half of 2008 and so far in 2009 and get him voted into the All-Star game. He has the ability to shine brightly for the Rays in that game, and he would represent the Rays with great flair and confidence. But if he is not in the upper tier of voting and is not selected by the fans votes, he still has a great shot of getting to his first All-Star game. I think the AL All-Star Manager will see that the game needs a guy like Bartlett in it.
That his selection would help put the best talent in the AL against the finest the NL has to offer in a great contest. For this year’s game in St. Louis, I am predicting a shot for Bartlett on the AL All-Star team. Based on the early results he will not be the only Rays rep on the field that day. Evan Longoria is getting the top votes for the third base spot, and also pushing Jeter right now for the top vote getter in the early returns.
But most of all, Bartlett will not have to go far to show his skills to be selected to the All-Star team. That is because this season’s AL skipper gets to watch him 162 games a year and has seen just how far this young player had come in a short time with the Rays. Oh, did you forget, Maddon is the AL skipper this season, but if he picks Bartlett it will be on merit, not on fondness or an impartial vote.