Pure Grit (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
The Rays drafted Reid Brignac in the 2nd round of the 2004 draft and patiently allowed him to climb his way through the minor league system. He spent 25 games in rookie league, 130 games in A ball, 100 games in high A, 161 games in AA, and a 193 games in AAA. His stature as a prospect was noted outside of the Rays organization and in 2007 was rated as the 17th best prospect on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list and remained on the list for the next three years ranking 39th in 2008, 78th in 2009, and 54th in 2010.
In 2010 he assumed the role of utility infielder and compiled a fWAR of 1.5 and hit .256 with 8 HR and 45 RBI. He played in a total of 113 games which included 68 games at 2b (39 starts), 50 games at SS (36 starts), and 2 games in RF (0 starts). Despite a strike out rate of 23.6%, a walk rate of 6.1%, and the seventh highest O-Swing% (swing attempts at balls out of the strike zone) of 42.7% (300 or more PAs) the Rays felt comfortable enough to trade Jason Bartlett to the San Diego Padres and turn the starting shortstop job over to him.
The 2011 season was miserable and it started with 67 April plate appearances where he posted a slash line of .222/.269/.222 and failed to register an extra base hits. The struggles continued and on July 20th he was hitting .194/.234/.219 with 3 extra base hits in 200 plate appearances. On July 23rd the Rays sent him to AAA Durham and on August 10th after 11 games he returned to the Rays. His final 2011 numbers were .193/.227/.221 with only 5 extra base hits in 265 PAs. Compared to his 2010 season his strike out rate increased to 26.9%, the walk rate decreased to only 3.8%, his O-Swing rate improved to 38.3%, and his BABIP fell 63 points from .317 to .254.
A lot has changed since spring training 2011. A year ago he was heading into the season with the knowledge that the starting shortstop job was his to lose. Last spring he was just a young man playing baseball and this spring he is not only in a battle for the starting shortstop job but a position on the opening day roster as well. But, the biggest change in his life has nothing to do with baseball as on Mach 10th he became a proud papa of a baby boy named Reid Micheal.
Through the early portion of spring training the new papa has done nothing to hurt his chances hitting .389/.450/.389 through 7 Grapefruit League games (entering Friday's action) but it is difficult to discern much out of spring training performances especially since Brignac himself hit .367/.367/.429 in 18 games last spring.
Joe Maddon said during the camp-opening media session that the winner of the starting shortstop job will be determined by "under-the-hood kind of stuff" and that there are "different things we want to see each guy make improvements with...regarding becoming more complete baseball players." Each player was going to be given a checklist of different things to work on including physical mechanics, such as baserunning and "instinctive kind of things" and said what the competition won't be based on is something as basic as batting average.
There is little doubt that if the Rays were to award the starting shortstop position to the best defensive player then Brignac's name would be penciled into the everyday lineup. Unfortunately, Brignac struggled so mightily with the bat in 2011 that the upgrade with the glove is quickly eliminated. In order to win more playing time he is going to have show improvements in three areas which he lags behind Sean Rodriguez. He will have to provide more power in the form of extra base hits (his ISO in 2010 was .130 and .028 in 2011), exhibit better speed and baserunning, and execute the sacrifice and squeeze bunt.
Some may suggest that Joe Maddon go with a stat-based platoon in hopes of maximizing the talents of both players while giving the Rays better defense up the middle. Brignac can start versus right handed non-fly ball pitchers and Sean Rodriguez can start against right handed fly ball pitchers and left handed pitchers. As an extra benefit to the creative platoon Joe Maddon could have Sean Rodriguez available to pinch hit late in games if trailing and Reid Brignac available to replace Rodriguez defensively if the Rays were ahead late.
In January, I looked favorably at Reid Brignac, receiving an opportunity to be the everyday shortstop or at the least garnering a share of the playing time. In the article, a poll question asked who the DRB community felt would be the shortstop come opening day (meaning which player should start the most) and the answers were pretty much equal between Brignac (30%), Rodriguez (28%), and a platoon of Brignac/Rodriguez (32%). My conclusion at the time was:
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.
On January 27, 2012, the Rays signed Jeff Keppinger to a major league contract which made me reevaluate my position and I no longer believe that the Rays will carry both Brignac and Rodriguez on the opening day roster.
At the end of the 2011 season, Tommy Rancel wrote an article for ESPNFlorida titled Sean Rodriguez, Rays' 2012 Shortstop? In the article Rancel points out that although Rodriguez made 9 errors in 169 chances at shortstop six of those were throwing errors. He suggests that these errors can be reduced by improving footwork and mechanics which will come through repetition. Rancel also points out that Rodriguez's plate discipline improved while playing everyday culminating in a 9.6% walk rate in September while only striking out 12%. He also posted a .347 OBP vs right handed pitchers over the last two months of the season (number slightly propped up slightly thanks to being hit by pitches six times).
I believe that Joe Maddon also saw the more disciplined Rodriguez and in an attempt to get a focused relaxed Rodriguez he has already let him know that if he comes to camp in shape and stays injury free that he will be the starting shortstop in 2012. Sean Rodriguez also has said that he normally spends a lot of time at 2b and shortstop during his offseason workouts but this offseason he spent around 90% of the time focusing on playing shortstop.
Where does this leave Brignac? The competition may really be between the type of player that will be considered the 25th man on the roster. It could be a utility infielder Reid Brignac/Elliot Johnson, it could be an outfielder Brandon Guyer, or it could be a complete surprise like Stephen Vogt/Chris Gimenez. There is also the outside chance that the Rays acquire an out of options player such as Brandon Allen or Nolan Reimold which would most likely send Brignac to the minors or he possibly could be involved in the trade.
What will Reid Brignac's role with the Rays be in 2012?
Starting Shortstop (60 votes)
He will be part of a strict platoon with Sean Rodriguez (206 votes)
He will fill the role of utility infielder and late inning defensive replacement (103 votes)
He will be in Durham until needed due to injury or poor performance (55 votes)
He will be part of a trade prior to opening day (27 votes)
451 total votes