Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 3/7/12
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. Of the 934 players to appear in a major league game last year, the surname that was dead last in the alphabet could be found in Tampa Bay. But fortunately for the Rays, Ben Zobrist ranks high on a different list: as one of the best players in baseball. In fact, ESPNs Top 100 ratings for 2011 placed the 30-year-old switch-hitter at No. 62. And when it comes to double trouble, there are few ballplayers more dangerous. Zobrist hit 46 doubles last season to tie for third in the American League, and led all major leaguers with extra-base hits and doubles combined. Only one switch-hitter in AL history has had more doubles in a season: Brian Roberts. And just three other players Victor Martinez, Mark Teixeira and Pablo Sandoval have hit more than his 102 doubles over the past three seasons. Good things just seem to come in twos for Zobrist. He and wife Julianna, an alternative Christian recording artist, welcomed their second child into the world in September, giving 9-year-old son Zion a little sister to watch out for in baby Kruse. He hit well from both sides of the plate last year .303 as a righty with 16 doubles and seven home runs, and .256 as a lefty with 30 doubles and 13 of his 20 blasts. He gave the Rays stability at two positions platooning in right with 2011 All-Star Matt Joyce and at second with Sean Rodriguez. And this season, he might be more involved turning two for the Rays, if Joyce sees more action in right on a daily basis and Zobrist gets to settle in more often at second. Thats by no means a certainty, because manager Joe Maddon may still decide that a second-and-right platoon system is the way to go with Zo, who could wind up dividing his time at second with new addition Jeff Keppinger. But given his druthers, the sixth-year Ray wouldnt mind spending more time patrolling the right side of the infield. "I think I like second base more, probably, just because youre closer to all the action between the pitcher and catcher and batter, he said. Ive had some really exciting times out in the outfield, too theres not much of a better feeling than throwing a guy out at home or making a great diving play out there. Overall, Id probably say Im an infielder at heart, but I enjoy playing the outfield, too. Its hard to overstate the value of Zobrist to the Rays. Hes a player who can contribute as much batting high in the order with his knack for getting on base (his 260 walks over the past three seasons rank third in the AL and 10th in the majors) as one of the power slots. Only nine switch-hitters in AL history have as many extra-base hits in a season a distinguished list that includes Mickey Mantle, Bernie Williams, Carlos Beltran, Roberts and Teixeira. Whats more, Zobrist led the Rays last season with a career-high 156 games played, including 153 starts, as well as career bests in runs (99), hits (158), extra-base hits (72) and those 46 doubles. His versatility has allowed Maddon to use Zobrist as a backup first baseman with no hesitation, but with Carlos Pena and Luke Scott now on the roster, hes not expecting any emergency duty at first. I would guess because we have Carlos and Luke, Im not going to have to use the first base glove during spring training very much, he said. Id guess this year with Matt Joyce playing as well as he did for us, theyre probably going to slate me to do a lot of stuff at second. But I have to be ready to play the outfield, too. I know there will be some starts in there, and if anybody gets injured, theres a good chance Ill get moved around, because we have other guys who can play second base well and other guys who can play the outfield well. I just need to be ready to go in wherever they put me. Zobrists breakthrough season came in 2009, his first full season with the club, when he hit .297 with 28 doubles, seven triples and 27 homers along with 91 RBI. That led Rays management to ink their emerging star to a four-year, 18 million deal through 2013, with club options for 2014 and 2015. (If both options are exercised, Zobrist will earn just under 30 million, but he plans to donate up to 450,000 of it to the Rays Baseball Foundation.) The excitement he felt over signing a long-term deal, however, soon gave way to a season marked with highs and lows. The Rays won the AL East and Zobrist started at five positions (right, center, first, second and third), collected a career high 92 walks and stole 24 bases, also a personal best. But Zobrists home run total dipped to 10, and he was bothered a back injury that occurred in batting practice. He struggled through hitless slumps of 0-for-23 and 0-for-18 and saw his batting average fall nearly 60 points to .238. Thats what made his resurgence in 2011 such a big story for the Rays, and so personally satisfying to Zobrist. I definitely feel like I learned some things through that year when I was injured, he said. After 2009, 2010 was a trying year. You always learn a lot more in life from the tough times than you do from the times when youve had a lot of success. With that being said, I found a little bit of a groove last year, which was nice. And you just try to keep that going as long as you can and pray that you stay healthy. Indeed, Zobrists deep faith is a defining part of his life. His father and Juliannas father are both ministers. And as many Rays fans know, his walk-up music for each at bat has been accompanied the past several seasons by songs from his wifes 2008 release, The Tree. Singer-songwriter Juliannas new studio album, Crazy Fearless, is due out on Opening Day (click http:thezobrists.com for more information). During the offseason, the Zobrists often traveled as a family with Julianna performing her music and Ben giving talks. Shes been doing some concerts and Ive speaking to groups, and weve been doing some of that stuff together, he said. I think of it kind of as a calling its something that God continues to give us the opportunity to do and use our abilities to glorify Him. Its the perfect spot for us. Zobrist believes the Rays are in a pretty good spot as well. For starters, hes thrilled with the additions of Pena and Scott. Ive talked to Luke over the years when he was playing for Baltimore and have appreciated our short conversations, and getting to know him a little bit more as a teammate, he said. And Carlos is one of my best friends on the team just one of the guys everybody loves. He brings such a positive attitude, its awesome. Could he see the Rays reaching the Series, as various national media outlets have predicted? Theres definitely the talent to be able to make it there, he said. Theres definitely the chemistry, the pitching, the defense all the things you want to see on paper are there. Its a matter of putting that stuff together. And thats what we need to do in this clubhouse: figure out how to make it come to fruition. Just as he has done with his own double-threat career.
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