Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 3/16/12
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. Reid Brignac looks at the numbers from 2011 attached to his name and still has trouble making them add up. His offensive struggles the .193 batting average, the five total extra-base hits followed a promising rookie season with the Tampa Bay Rays after a highly touted minor league career. But last year, after inheriting the starting job at shortstop when the Rays dealt incumbent Jason Bartlett to San Diego, the bottom fell out. Brignac quickly lost his grip as an everyday player because of his troubles hitting the ball and eventually wound up back with Tampa Bays Triple-A club in Durham to get more playing time and try to get back on track. And that opened the door for his pal, utilityman Sean Rodriguez, to shift from his primary spot at second base and begin settling in at short later in the season. I had a lot of adversity last year things didnt necessarily go my way, he said. It was extremely difficult and mentally taxing every day not finding any consistency and starting to lose playing time. I had to continue to tell myself, Youre still a very good player. You have to go out there and prove yourself. But I could just never find any good rhythm offensively. To have five extra-base hits all last year? Id have five extra-base hits in a week in any normal season. But through all of his woes, the Rays management continued to believe in the lithe, 6-foot-3, 190-pounder from Louisiana. This spring, Brignac is battling it out with Rodriguez for the starting shortstop job and beginning to resemble the player the Rays were so high on heading into last year. So far this spring, hes hitting .389 (7-for-18) and playing well in the field, though Rodriguez also has good numbers (.400; 4-for-10) and is looking sharp defensively. Each player has missed some playing time recently, with Brignac excused for the birth of his son and Rodriguez suffering a sprained left index finger. Earlier this week against Baltimore, Rays manager Joe Maddon moved Rodriguez back to second base to give Brignac the start at short. But the competition will likely continue throughout March as Maddon assesses their progress. He cautioned at the start of camp that batting average alone wont determine the eventual winner, saying it would come down to under-the-hood considerations: The different things we want to see each guy make improvements with . . . regarding becoming more complete baseball players." On that front, Brignac has been scoring well lately, according to Maddon. Reid's working better at-bats," Maddon said several days ago in Sarasota. "He's swinging at better pitches. . . . Hes running the bases pretty well, bunted well the other day. That's why I believe our meetings are so invaluable at the beginning of camp. A lot of the things we've spoken to him about, it's apparent he's really listened. I've seen some improvement in different areas. "He's on track. It's really early to say that he's accomplished all these different things. But he's definitely moving in the right direction. Among all the guys, he's probably near the top of working on that list and doing a good job of it." One of the areas hes worked hard on is his swing not adjusting the natural uppercut hes had as a left-handed hitter but on his stance and trying to return to his former mind-set as a hitter. Ninety-percent of left-handed hitters have an uppercut, thats just how it is, Brignac said. What Im focusing on is getting taller in the box. You know, Im 6-3 and I felt like I was losing leverage last year by being spread out and trying to hit like different people, instead of hitting like me the person I am. Ive always driven the ball my whole life Ive been a doubles hitter, a gap-to-gap hitter. Im not talking home runs. Im talking about driving the ball into the gap. My rookie year (in 2010), I had a great year and I was driving the ball. Brignac ranked high in a number of rookie offensive categories during the season, finishing with a .256 batting average with 13 doubles, a triple and eight homers in 301 at-bats. He also recorded 45 RBI. He displayed excellent range defensively, giving the Rays enough confidence to designate him as Bartletts successor. Part of that decision was his performance in the Rays farm system. With Durham in 2009, Brignac batted .282 with 28 doubles, two triples and eight homers in 415 at-bats (and hit for the cycle in one game) to help his team win its first Triple-A championship. The previous year he hit .250 with 26 doubles, two triples and nine homers for the Bulls. Thats why Brignac was searching for answers last season, when he finished with only four doubles and one homer in 249 at-bats while striking out 63 times. Even his defense at shortstop took a dip: He committed seven errors after making only four as a rookie. Ultimately, his brief return to Durham proved beneficial. Absolutely, I got to play every day, he said. That was the first time since the beginning of the season. Even then, I wasnt hitting against lefties and I was getting pinch hit for. So to hit at the top of the lineup in Triple-A, to know I was going to get my at-bats no matter who was pitching or what was happening, got me comfortable again. And when I got called back up, I played a lot better. Though Brignac continues to play well this spring, he says he isnt focused on his offensive numbers. Im concentrating on having quality at-bats every time I go out there, he said. Im not worried about average; Im not worried about getting hits. Im worried about swinging at pitches that I want to swing at and not expand my zone. So far in camp, Ive gotten a few walks and hit the ball consistently well. Now, he again finds himself in a competition with Rodriguez. The two formed a solid bond during camp in 2010, when each battled for a roster spot and both ultimately made the cut. Its not weird for me to be competing with Sean, he said. This is the major leagues. If its not Sean, its somebody else. Everybody wants to get to this point. For however long my career is, its going to be that way. Until I sign a multiyear contract where I know Im guaranteed those years, every year is a possibility that I have to compete for a job. In the meantime, Brignac is making the most of his opportunity this spring and feeling more like his old self than he has in a year. I love this game, he said. Ive been playing it since I was 3. Last year was a learning experience. So I wanted to come in this year feeling good, feeling strong and healthy, and just enjoying playing baseball again.
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