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Tampa Bay’s Bartlett, Zobrist having career years (and no one’s noticing).

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Playing for a small market team baseball team has its advantages. You don’t have to deal with the media and there’s a lot less pressure to perform.

But it also certainly has its disadvantages.

The Tampa Bay Ray’s Ben Zobrist and Jason Bartlett can attest to that.

Zobrist and Bartlett are having anything but normal years. In fact, they’re having two of the best seasons in Major League Baseball. Zobrist, who until this season acted as a “we’ll call him up when we need him” type player, has already surpassed his career best numbers in every offensive category. In addition, he’s played Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field, left field, center field, and at shortstop, second base, and third base. Barlett, who is batting an incredible .363 through the first half of the season, broke a Ray’s team record by hitting in 19 straight games. He’s on pace to shatter his average yearly output.

Aside from the occasional touting on MLB Network, the two are getting little recognition. Zobrist, since he’s played at so many positions, is not even listed on the Major League Baseball All-Star ballot. You have to write him in. He is sure to miss the game, unless he’s chosen as a reserve, despite being a top five outfielder. Bartlett isn’t going to escape snubbing either. Despite besting Derek Jeter in nearly every offensive category in less at-bats, he is still over a million votes behind Mr. November.

.289, 43 R, 16 HR, 44 RBI.

.289, 43 R, 16 HR, 44 RBI.

The breakouts of Zobrist and Bartlett make the Ray’s front office look like geniuses.

Ben Zobrist has never been looked upon as anything more than a fringe major leaguer. He was drafted by the Houston Astros in the sixth round of the 2004 draft and in the coming years, he was flippantly dismissed as a utility player who was too old for whichever level he played at by Baseball Prospectus. And Baseball America barely gave him mention, but did give him credit for his strike zone discipline. Despite playing well for the Astro’s minor league camps through the 2006 season, Zobrist was shuttled to the Rays as part of the Aubrey Huff-to-Houston deal. He was seen as a throw in, with lefty Mitch Talbot being the gold.

The Rays rushed Zobrist to the majors that same year and he struggled to the tune of a .224 average through 183 at-bats. For the next two years, Zobrist acted as a AAA replacement for any injured starter. He never fared well in the majors, but always seemed to regain his footing once back with Durham in the International League. Unless they needed him, the Rays never pushed Zobrist, instead deciding to let him develop in the minors until the time was opportune. After batting .366 in Durham last season, Zobrist was brought up for good.

His fortunes this year are definitely a surprise. Zobrist has never shown this caliber of game-changing power at any level of the game. His recent surge is most likely being aided by his position in the batting order (behind sluggers Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena) and his previously developed ability to recognize good and bad pitches. He’s taking walks at an incredible rate despite an increased strikeout frequency. Zobrist’s 2009 is echoing his stellar 2007 campaign with the Durham Bulls, where he showed above-average power, but nothing incredible. I can’t picture him keeping up this pace, but I hope he can.

Bartlett’s story is eerily similar to Zobrist’s. Drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 13th round of the 2001 draft, Bartlett was quickly dealt to the Minnesota Twins.

He played well at every minor league stop, but like Zobrist, he faltered upon each callup. It wasn’t until 2006 that he solidified himself as a starting shortstop with the big club. Bartlett’s calling card has always been the same, no matter which level: hit for average, little power, score some runs, and play good defense.

Bartlett came to Tampa in 2007 as part of the Delmon Young-for-Matt Garza swap with the Twins. Bartlett was thrown into the trade as a shortstop exchange for Brendan Harris. The Twins believed they were letting go of an aging shortstop with ever-decreasing range and in Harris, they saw a younger, better caliber player. In the coming years, this trade is going to go down as one of the most lopsided of the 2000’s.

.363, 40 R, 7 HR, 35 RBI.

.363, 40 R, 7 HR, 35 RBI.

While Young has yet to do anything for Minnesota, both Garza and Bartlett have become above average players. Last year, Bartlett was voted the Ray’s team MVP ahead of Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria and slugger Carlos Pena. Yet Bartlett’s numbers from his 2008 campaign don’t stand out; they’re fairly pedestrian.

Bartlett has become invaluable to the Ray’s for his defense. In 2008, the club gave up nearly 300 runs less than they did in 2007. 300 less runs. A change that drastic simply does not happen overnight unless you bring in a stellar defensemen. Bartlett shored up what was once the worst up-the-middle defense in the league and writers took notice.

This year, Bartlett is doing it with the bat. He is third in batting average, behind only the Twin’s Joe Mauer and the Mariner’s Ichiro Suzuki. He’s in the top ten in a half dozen more obscure, yet important, other offensive categories.

Considering that both players were viewed as small, insignificant pieces to major trades, I’d say the Ray’s are getting their money’s worth and then some. Pulling off shrewd, seemingly menial moves like these are why the Rays have become such a power in the American League East.

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2 Responses

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  1. I wrote an article a couple of days ago about Zobrist on cooliocards.blogspot.com

    zach

    June 27, 2009 at 10:54 pm

  2. […] here: Tampa Bay's Bartlett, Zobrist having career years (and no one's … bartlett, ben-zobrist, career, dogs, durham, game, gold, houston, jason-bartlett, media, […]


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