Reid Brignac was riding a wave of positive vibes heading into the 2011 season. After spending parts of six seasons in the Rays minor league system and assuming the utility role in 2010 the Rays felt that it was time for him to take his position as the starting shortstop. For this to happen the Rays had to move incumbent shortstop Jason Bartlett. This was accomplished on December 18, 2010 when the Rays traded Bartlett to the San Diego Padres in exchange for relief pitchers Adam Russell, Cesar Ramos, Brandon Gomes and infielder Cole Figueroa. After the trade was completed Andrew Friedman reinforced the notion that the job was being handed over to Brignac by stating that "there's no plans to acquire a veteran shortstop as the Rays are comfortable turning the job over to Brignac.."
In 2010 Brignac appeared in 113 games and hit .256 with 8 HR and 45 RBI but had a robust strike out rate of 23.6% (77 K's in 326 PA) and a rather pedestrian walk rate of 6.1% (20 BB in 326 PA). He appeared in 68 games at 2b (39 starts), 50 games at SS (36 starts), and 2 games in RF (0 starts). The Rays were comfortable with his defense but wanted to see some improvement with his plate discipline.
According to Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac is one of the most self-confident players on the team. He said of Rodriguez that "he carries himself a little higher than most want or expect but by far he's not only a great payer but an unbelievable friend. Brignac himself said about his self confidence "if you don't believe in yourself, who else is going to believe in you?"
Brignac would have his self confidence tested in 2011.
Brignac struggled right out of the gate and posted a slash line of .222/.269/.222 without an extra base hit through 67 PAs in April and continued to struggle in May. At the end of May (a month where he was temporarily away from the team after the death of his grandfather) he had a slash line of .173/.211/.183 and only one extra base hit in 110 PAs. June saw a slight improvement as he hit .196/.262/.268 but this only elevated his season to date numbers to .181/.229/.213 with three extra base hits in 172 PAs. In July he had his playing time reduced and although he hit .259 in 10 games (8 starts) he still was unable to drive the ball and was impatient at the plate striking out 7 times in 28 PAs without drawing a walk.
On July 23rd the Rays sent Brignac to Durham and called up Desmond Jennigs. Joe Maddon said:
"We wanted to get Desmond up here and we wanted to get Brignac better offensively," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "There's no question Reid is a Major League caliber shortstop without question. And I don't like the idea of him not playing defense for us. But moving down the road we have to get better on the offensive side of the ball.- mlb.com
Maddon did not have anything negative to say about Brignac's defense:
"We just explained to him all of the different areas where we think he needs to get better," Maddon said. "We have to get very specific with the Durham people to make sure it gets followed through with. But that's it in a nutshell. Defensively, he plays here any day of the week for any team in the big leagues. Offensively, moving down the road we want to make sure all of this stuff is in order, because if you don't take care of it now, eventually it can drag out and then all of a sudden you don't like him as much as a shortstop." - mlb.com
Brignac spent a little over two weeks in Durham and returned to the team on August 10th when Justin Ruggiano was placed on the 15 day disabled list with bursitis. He played 11 games for the Bulls and only hit .2321 but on the positive side he did draw more walks (7) than strikeouts (6). Through the rest of the month of August he hit .211/.211/.211 with no extra base for the Rays but said the time in Durham helped ease his mind:
"I wasn't in the best state of mind," he said. "Now I've completely changed my mind-set and things. I'm happy to be here. I was happy to be here earlier. I was just a little upset — not necessarily upset, but disappointed in how certain things were unfolding. I'm over it." -tbo.com
Although Brignac appeared in 14 games in September (12 starts) he was unable to break out of the slump that had gripped him starting in April. In September he hit .186/.205/.233 to end the season hitting .193/.227/.221 with only 5 extra base hits in 265 PAs. Brignac still put the ball in play as his K% increased by only 1.1% in 2011 (26.9%) than 2010 (26.6%) but his BB% decreased 38% from 6.1% in 2010 to 3.8% in 2011. Additionally, his BABIP in 2010 was .317 and that tailed off to .254 in 2011. Interesting enough the drop in BABIP in 2011 is paired with an increase in line drive% from 19.5% in 2010 to 22.5% in 2011.
In early December Joe Maddon reiterated that the shortstop position will be a battle in spring training between Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac. With that said many of us can recall Joe Maddon emphatically saying that Matt Garza will be in the Rays rotation in 2011.
Defensively Brignac gets the nod over Rodriguez but Rodriguez did out OPS Brignac by .231 points .679 to .448 in 2011. Some may suggest that Brignac and Rodriguez should platoon at shortstop but Brignac only hit .201/.234/.234 vs RHP while Rodriguez hit .192/280/.286 against RHP in 2011. Even when taking the larger career samples against RHP Brignac only has a slight nod against RHP with a .244/.281/.351 an OPS of .632 in 576 PA and Rodriguez is a .212/.278/.337 an OPS of .615 OPS in 662 PA.
Brignac is not the first young player to struggle for an entire season when trying to cut his teeth as a full time starter in the majors and he won't be the last. His resolve was tested and he has to move on in 2012 and put the ugliness of 2011 behind him. Even though there is a lot to dislike about Brignac's 2011 performance I do believe he will be the Rays starting shortstop come opening day but will have a much shorter leash than in 2011. Sean Rodriguez will be the backup and will see time at SS and 2b and an additional middle infielder may be brought in to provide insurance in the event that Brignac struggles and a roster move is forced on the Rays.