After playing all over the field during the first few weeks of March, Upton found a home when he beat out incumbent second baseman Jorge Cantu for an everyday job. Now that Upton finally has a chance to be in the lineup on a regular basis, 2007 could finally be the year the former first round pick has a much anticipated breakout year.
Although Upton has one of the strongest arms in the entire organization, second base may not be a bad option for him. Through the first 12 games this season, Upton is hitting .325 with 1 HR and 8 RBIS. His defense has been adequate, but very poor at times as well. From what I have heard, Maddon has given Upton a long leash and the position is his to lose.
Jorge Cantu, who is currently the designated hitter at AAA Durham, may never play second base at the big league level again. GM Andrew Friedman and the rest of the front office appears to have lost all of their faith in his defensive abilities. From an offensive standpoint, Upton is also a better option depending on what type of Cantu we are dealing with. Will the player who drove in 117 runs and won the Devil Rays Team MVP in 2005 ever return to St. Petersburg? Most likely, the player who struck out 91 times with a .242 average in 2006 is the real Cantu. If Upton falters, Brendan Harris, Akinori Iwamura, and Ty Wigginton could all see innings at second this season. Elliot Johnson, who is off to a rough start with a .196 batting average at Durham through 12 games, could also get called up at some point during the season.
Even with the switch to second base, Upton still insists he will still be an All Star shortstop someday. The position currently belongs to 26 year old Ben Zobrist . Zobrist, who was acquired along with Mitch Talbot in the Aubrey Huff trade with the Houston Astros last summer, has been the Rays shortstop since Lugo was traded. Nearly every pre-season baseball magazine that I read over the winter ranked Zobrist as one of the worst offensive shortstops in the game today. Zobrist appeared in 50 games in 2004, but only hit .224 without showing a hint of power. The Dallas Baptist product turned in a solid performance during Spring Training, but is off to a slow start to the 2007 season. Through the first 12 games, Zobrist is hitting just .160 with only 2 extra base hits. Clearly, Zobrist's play has been less then stellar, but he certainly has not lost his starting job yet. Of what I have seen in games at Tropicana Field and during Spring Training in March, Zobrist is a solid defender who makes the routine play consistently. He has is not flashy, but is still ready to play shortstop at the major league level. Still, Zobrist does not have the range or athleticism of a player like Upton.
Obviously. Zobrist is not the answer as the Devil Rays shortstop of the future. He is more of a temporary player who will be in the lineup until someone else emerges. Barring an injury or trade, Zobrist is only keeping the seat warm for 2006 Devil Rays Minor League Player of the Year, Reid Brignac. Brignac is in the organizations' plans as the answer to be the shortstop for years to come. Assuming Upton does not stage a miraculous comeback defensively at the position, Brignac will get his chance at the big league level in the very near future. Brignac impressed the Devil Rays coaching staff during the first few weeks of Spring Training with his swing before being sent to minor league camp. Through his first 11 games at AA Montgomery, Brignac is leading the Biscuits in batting average with a .333 clip. The 21 year old shortstop also has 3 2B, 1 HR, and 6 RBIS.
In 2006, Brignac batted .326 with 21 home runs and 83 RBIS in the Class A California League to earn the league's Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year honors. Last year, Brignac showed great power for a young player, but he still needs to improve his plate discipline tremendously. Like most young shortstops, he still has a lot of work to do on his defense before he is ready to join the Rays big league club. Hopefully, Brignac will keep developing in the Rays minor league system this season and will make an impact for the Rays sooner than later. All Rays fans should be hoping, if not counting on Brignac and Evan Longoria to make up the left side of the Rays infield for years to come.
Realistically, it is a safe bet that Iwamura and Zobrist will make up the left side of the infield for the majority of the 2007 season. Still, Brignac and Longoria should get an opportunity when they are called up in September. Also, I think Upton is going to end up as an outfielder before it is all said and done. His younger brother, Justin, has already made the switch to centerfield and I think it will eventually happen with B.J. too. It is still fun to think about these potential infields.
3B Evan Longoria SS Reid Brignac 2B B.J. Upton
3B Evan Longoria SS Reid Brignac 2B Akinori Iwamura