After an offseason full of roster moves and acquisitions, skipper Joe Maddon will have some choices to make this year regarding Ben Zobrist's role on the baseball diamond.
In 2012, the Rays' super-utility man played 71 games (541.1 innings) in right field and split the other 800.1 innings between shortstop and second base, where he shared playing time with Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts.
Like every season in Zorilla's career, Maddon will find a new way to utilize him on the field in 2013.
New additions to the middle infield will likely cause Zobrist to play more in right field this season. Tampa Bay signed signed both shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson this winter, leaving the Rays with a rather complex situation to sort out at second.
The potential 'quadtoon' -- as Maddon calls it -- at second base will be made up of Johnson, Zobrist, Ryan Roberts and Sean Rodriguez.
Johnson will likely be the team's main second baseman, but won't be an everyday starter, as he'll bounce around in left field during the season as well.
Signing of Johnson will enable #Raysto play Zobrist in RF. But Zobrist also likely to play at 2B as well, and Johnson may play some OF.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 28, 2013
As for Rodriguez and Roberts, the two utility men will be more or less backups for Johnson and Zobrist at second base, but will contribute to the team in other ways. Roberts will get some playing time at third behind Evan Longoria, platoon with both James Loney at first base and Luke Scott at DH against left-handed pitchers and will also be used often as a pinch hitter.
Rodriguez will also provide depth across the infield in a similar way, but being the weaker hitter, will probably have less at bats.
What this all basically means for Zobrist is that he'll be the Rays' starting right fielder. That brings up a key question: Will the Rays be downgrading their defense by starting Johnson at second over Zobrist?
Zobrist had a career-worst year last season defensively at second posting a -14.1 UZR/150. Johnson didn't perform so well either, putting up a -8.1 UZR.
However, numbers show that Zobrist's poor fielding at second base in 2012 was most likely a fluke, while Johnson's stats show a concerning downward trend defensively over the past three seasons. Zobrist had a Gold Glove caliber season at second in 2011 when he played over a thousand innings at the position, posting a 6.8 UZR and 23 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved).
If the Rays do have a defensive advantage in the infield with Zobrist at second, then is putting him in the outfield still a good idea?
One alternative option is putting Johnson in left field and Matt Joyce in right in order for Zobrist to be the main second baseman. Although this may make the Rays' defense at second base better, it would probably weaken their outfield defense.
Joyce posted a negative UZR in both left field and right field last year. Johnson hasn't played the outfield since his 2005 rookie season when he played 79 games in left field for the Braves. As good as his defensive numbers actually were that season, we can't expect him to be as good of a fielder as Zobrist.
It would essentially mean that Joyce would play right field instead of Zobrist, which would definitely be a downgrade as the stronger arm is in favor of Zobrist.
In conclusion, we can expect to see Maddon experiment with a few different things on the diamond throughout the season.
I predict Zobrist takes on a similar role like the one he had in 2011, when he played 55 games as second base and 103 in right field.