Around the Horn: Middle infielders
Iwamura's shift over to second completes infield's new look
The following is the third in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Middle infielders.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Akinori Iwamura will move from third to second, and Jason Bartlett is on board to take over at shortstop, giving the Rays an entirely different look in the middle of their infield in 2008.
Iwamura came to the Rays from Japan in 2007 and he spent the season playing third base, save for the final game of the season in Toronto when he tried a shift at second. Iwamura flashed Gold Glove-worthy leather at third base, but the prospect of moving him to second has been a part of the team's long-range planning all along.
"With Aki, there is certainly a risk element, shifting a guy from third base to second base," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations. "But the idea when we signed him was to play third base until the time Evan Longoria was ready. We didn't know if it would be one year, two years, three years, but we felt like Aki had the actions to play second base. He has the willingness and the work ethic. While it's a risk, we feel pretty confident that not only will he be able to do it, but he'll be pretty good at it as well."
Iwamura routinely made acrobatic plays that defied logic throughout the 123 games he played in during the 2007 season. However, his bat and speed make him better suited to be a middle infielder than a third baseman, where the preference is for power. Iwamura hit .285 with just seven home runs and 34 RBIs in 2007 -- far more impressive numbers for a second baseman than a third baseman.
Whether Longoria is ready to take over third at the beginning of the season is irrelevant in regard to Iwamura, who will be the team's second baseman.
"Our conventional wisdom is to put [Iwamura] at second base, leave him there even if we don't feel Evan is ready to start the season, and go try to make a match at third base so we're not bumping Aki all over the place," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Iwamura has been working during the offseason in Japan with an old coach of his, who once helped him make the conversion from catcher to third base.
"I've talked to somebody who has spoken to [Iwamura], and everything is going well," Maddon said. "[Iwamura's coach] has been doing a good job. I just heard he was doing fine. I heard that he really likes the idea [of moving to second] and that he feels really good about it."
Tampa Bay Rays
Meanwhile, Bartlett came to the Rays along with right-hander Matt Garza in a trade that sent right fielder Delmon Young and infielder Brendan Harris to the Twins. Bartlett was attractive to the Rays more for his defense than offense, but he does have speed. Bartlett stoled 23 bases in 2007 and he hit .309 for the Twins in 2006.
"That's a deal we felt was good for both sides," Maddon said. "We really needed to shore up our defense, particularly in the middle at shortstop, and we had targeted Bartlett for awhile."
Bartlett did commit 26 errors last season, the most of any shortstop in the Major Leagues. But he has a strong arm and good range, which are attributes not seen in a box score. Some of Bartlett's struggles in 2007 can be attributed to neck and shoulder injuries that plagued him throughout the season. Regardless, the Rays are sold on the player who will take over at shortstop this season.
"It's pretty well documented what we think about Bartlett defensively," Friedman said.
Ben Zobrist, who was the Opening Day shortstop in 2007, is the main backup at short and second entering Spring Training, but he will get competition from Andy Cannizaro, whom the Rays recently signed to a Minor League contract with an invite to Spring Training.
"Right now [Zobrist] is [the backup]," Friedman said. "We're going to get into camp and kind of assess all those things. But going into it, I'd certainly say he is the favorite.
"... [Cannizaro] is a baseball player. We feel like we'd be shortchanging him to not give him an opportunity to come in and compete for a utility role. But if he doesn't make the team, we feel great about having him at Triple-A."
Finally, the backup at both positions still could come when, and if, the Rays trade for or sign a "super utility" player. Even if the Rays do not find such a player, they like what they have.
"We feel like around the infield we'll be actually improved and it will actually be an asset for our pitchers," Friedman said.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.