I recently went on one of those spur-of-the-moment fishing trips.
Usually I keep just about every tool I could possibly need in my tackle box. Those tools are usually pretty specific for the job at hand when I’m out to the water. This includes knives. Most days my tackle box has a knife for filleting, one for cutting big bait, and one for cutting small bait. There’s usually a bunch of multitools and pocket knives in there as well. I end up with a bunch of those after holidays and trade shows. They, in turn, usually end up in the bottom of my tackle box.
During this recent fishing trip, for whatever reason, all that was left in my tackle box was this collection of Swiss Army and other assorted pocket knives. I didn’t realize that until we were already out on the water far from everyone. I had a knife with a screwdriver, a nail file, a can opener and a toothpick, but nothing really suitable for cutting bait.
As I stood on the dock trying to cut chunks of a frozen jack with a dull two-inch blade–which was only slightly more effective than the nail clippers, I realized that there is such a thing as having too much versatility.
Ever since the Joe Madden days, the Rays as an organization have put a premium on a player’s ability to play multiple positions. Ever since Ben Zobrist redefined the super utility role for them, Tampa Bay has valued versatility.
But what happens when you have too much of it? What happens when you have a tackle box full of knives that can unscrew, file down and trim a hangnail but what you really need in the moment is a stout blade to gut a fish?
This is something manager Kevin Cash and the Rays are going to have to figure out this spring. Currently on the Rays 40-man roster, the Rays have Matt Duffy, Joey Wendle, Daniel Robertson, Brandon Lowe, Christian Arroyo, Yandy Diaz and Andrew Velazquez. Even Willy Adames, the one player who seemingly has a position at shortstop already locked down this spring, can be put in that group as well having played considerable time at the keystone in his young career. All of them are versatile players that can play multiple positions. All of them bring certain talents. All of them also bring some level of uncertainty whether they can be the kind of blade that is needed when the time comes.
So how do the Rays find room at two positions—possibly three if you count first base — for at least seven guys who are essentially the same player?
Here’s a breakdown of the players who are vying to become the second/third/super utility man for 2019. How they perform will determine whether this year’s team can slice through the American League or end up –just like my bait did that day — as a mangled pile of scales and fish guts.
Duffy was one of Tampa Bay’s best contact hitters last season, batting .294 in 132 games. He also proved he was more than capable defensively to handle the hot corner. The problem with Duffy is that his power numbers (4 HRs and .366 slugging percentage) don’t measure up at a position where run production is essential. Duffy has also been hampered by a hamstring strain this spring and his history with lingering injuries is not good.
Wendle was a pleasant surprise last season as a 28-year-old rookie, batting .300 with 33 doubles. He appears to have the inside track at the second baseman’s job after bouncing around five different positions in 2018. Like Duffy, Wendle isn’t much of a long ball threat after hitting just seven homers in 139 games last season.
Before being derailed by injury last season, Robertson was enjoying a solid year at the plate batting .262 with nine home runs in 87 games. He also played all around the infield including 39 games at second, 29 at short and 19 at third. Like many of the players in this group, Robertson has the athleticism to handle any position, including the corner outfield spots, and would make an ideal candidate for a super utility role again this season.
Diaz was part of the offseason trade that sent Jake Bauers to Cleveland. While he has shown some potential with the bat, batting .329 in limited action last season, he is another player who could find himself playing to a team need and not a personal strength defensively. A third baseman by trade, Diaz will likely see most of his time at first. While Diaz may have versatility, he isn’t likely t replace the 30+ home runs the Rays got out of C.J. Cron last season at that position.
Arroyo appeared to be the heir apparent for the man he was traded for — Evan Longoria — at third base. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to just 20 games at the big league level last season. The 24-year-old has also spent time at second base but until he can establish himself at one position, he won’t be able to fulfill the potential that made him a former first-round draft pick.
Lowe might have the biggest offensive potential in this group having hit 22 home runs in 100 minor league games to go with a .297 average and a .391 on-base percentage. He hit another six more home runs at the big league level after a 43 game audition with the big club in the second half. The Rays might try and cycle him in the rotation at first base to get him more playing time but he is yet another player that does a lot of things well but not well enough to win any one job outright.
If the Rays choose to go with a defensive-minded player to fill the Swiss Army knife role on the roster, Velazquez, who played six different positions in 34 2/3 innings in 2018, is perhaps the best glove man of this crowded group. Unfortunately for him, a glove-first utility player is far too specialized for this roster right now.
Further complicating the situation are players like Nick Solak (.282/19/73 in 113 games at AA) and Kean Wong (.282/35 XBH in 116 games at AAA) who also fit that mold of 2B/3B/super utility player who are running out of minor league levels to progress through, creating a logjam that goes several layers deep. Veteran Emilio Bonifacio, who has played at least 100 career games at five different positions is also in camp this spring as a non-roster invitee.
Of course Opening Day of the regulation season is still weeks away. Sometimes these things have a way of working themselves out. Right now, however, when I look at the Rays tackle box, I see an entire stash of pocket knives and multitools that they’ve been hoarding for years. Soon, especially in the cutthroat world of the AL East, there will come a time when they are going to need more than a combination bottle opener-Phillips head screw driver.
They’re going to need something capable of cutting off some heads.
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