Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 3/20/12
PORT CHARLOTTE Sean Rodriguez has traversed the field for the Tampa Bay Rays like a frequent flier making stops during his two seasons at second, short, third and first, in center and left and as a DH. Heck, hes even volunteered to go behind the plate in an emergency. But the veteran utility man is hoping to finally land at the spot his big league career began and what became his primary destination in the second half of 2011. Rodriguez was originally signed by the Angels in 2003 as a shortstop and finds himself in a neck-and-neck battle with Reid Brignac this spring for the starting job. The position was Brignacs to lose last year and he did just that with a major nosedive offensively. His unexpected swoon opened the door for Rodriguez, who shifted over from his usual home at second base and wound up playing 60 games at short by seasons end. It also set up a head-to-head competition between Rodriguez and Brignac that has been one of the ongoing story lines of camp, and one still without a resolution in sight. Manager Joe Maddon made it clear when the team reported in Port Charlotte late last month that the decision wouldnt be based solely on hitting, but on intangible under-the-hood factors as well. Brignac has certainly been faring well at the plate following his .193 season of 2011. Entering Tuesday, hes hitting .389 (7 for 18), while Rodriguez stands at .250 (4 for 16) after a hot start that was slowed by a recent left index finger sprain. Theres a lot riding on the next two-plus weeks of exhibition play for each player Brignac would love to reclaim the role he assumed last year, amid high expectations, when the Rays traded starter Jason Bartlett to San Diego, and Rodriguez would like nothing more than to return to his old infield position. It definitely feels like Im back home at short, he said. The last time I consistently played short was 2007 (in the Angels farm system). After that, I never saw short again, other than a few times, until last season. Its just a matter of getting more repetitions there, but it definitely feels comfortable for me. I still say thats my best position. Rodriguez has made his share of head-turning diving plays at second for the Rays over the past two seasons, and he feels he can contribute with the same high defensive standards at short. The bigger question is his hitting. He didnt struggle massively at the plate like Briganc (whose batting average plummeted 60 points to fall below the Mendoza Line), but he struggled nonetheless. After hitting .251 in 2010, Rodriguez dipped to .223 last year in 373 at bats though his walk total increased from 21 to 38 and strikeouts dropped from 97 to 87. The right-handed hitter was at his best against lefty pitching, batting .273, compared with .192 against righthanders. He worked with hitting coach Derek Shelton late last year on refining his stance, and that paid off. In September and October, Rodriguez batted .246 with two doubles, two homers, eight RBI and an on-base percentage of .370 (his best in any single previous month that season). I feel I can do more at the plate, and that comes down to consistency, he said. We made a lot of adjustments toward the end of last season, trying to put a concrete base together the approach, and where I might want to be in the box, positioning and stance. We found something that I think will be concrete, and I think thats whats helped me the most. Rodriguez also feels more confident due to the continuity hes enjoyed with the same coaching staff since 2010, something he didnt have earlier in his career. Just being able to work with the same group of guys Shelton, and a little bit with Joe - over two and three years makes a difference," he said. "We can take everything and put it on the table. And we all know what were talking about I think really helps. And its a huge factor in being able to find consistency. When youre trying to make an adjustment, I have all this info thats been the same year to year and its like were speaking the same language. Maddon has been a Rodriguez fan from the start, praising his grittiness, versatility and passion for the game. That all-out style was never more evident in the final game of last years ALDS against Texas. With the Rangers leading 2-0 in the second inning, Rodriguez walked and scored from first on a double barreling into catcher Mike Napoli to score a run that energized the crowd and got the Rays back into the game. The Rays skipper paid Rodriguez a high compliment in 2011: He is a throwback in every sense of the word. He could have played in any decade, any era. Hes kind of unique with todays baseball player. That meant a whole lot when Joe said that, Rodriguez said. Ive never gotten a compliment like that in my baseball career. That meant the world to me and also to my father (longtime coach Johnny Rodriguez) when he heard it. He teaches players to love this game and play the game the way its supposed to be played. Despite the uncertainty of his situation at short, Rodriguez says he heads into 2012 with a sense of optimism. I feel confident every time I step on the field or in the box, he said. And he maintains the competition against Brignac has made them both better. The two formed a solid friendship competing to make the roster in 2010 camp, and it continues strong today. I truly think the competition between us has helped both of our games, he said. If we both end up making the team, its only going to push us to do better and make the team better. Thats the long and short of it.
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