The Rays have no shortage of second basemen. If they chose to, they could play former first-round draft picks Tim Beckham or Nick Franklin or even budding prospect Daniel Robertson there.
Shoot, they could even play Rickie Weeks there. The former Brewers All-Star joined the Rays a week ago, signing a minor-league deal in an effort to squeeze at least one more year out of his aging body.
As it stands right now, though, the Rays are choosing to play one-time starting shortstop, occasional left fielder and, until just recently, projected first-baseman Brad Miller at second base.
That’s the move they’ve committed themselves to after their trade of Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers for pitching prospect Jose De Leon left a hole there, and one look at Miller’s 2016 power production tells you why.
Though he struggled to find a place where he wasn’t a liability in the field, Miller had a breakout season at the plate last year, launching a career-best 30 home runs, or one every 20 plate appearances.
Now, if that seems a bit out of the norm for Miller, it’s because it is. In his previous 1,243 major league plate appearances Miller hit 29 home runs, or one every 42.8 trips to the plate.
That’s the Miller the Rays thought they were getting when they acquired him in a six-player trade with the Mariners last year, and you get the feeling that’s who they think he’ll be going forward.
After all, if the Rays really thought Miller would consistently hit for the kind of power he displayed a year ago, why wouldn’t they just leave him in left field, at first base or make him the designated hitter?
It’s not like Miller’s going to make the Rays better defensively by playing second. Sure, he’s played there before (a total of 37 games over three seasons with Seattle) but he was never much more than adequate.
In those 37 games, only 18 of which were starts, Miller produced a slightly-better-than average range factor of 4.68 and a fielding-percentage of .971 after committing three errors in 105 chances.
Besides, Miller still considers himself a shortstop first and foremost, and while he wasn’t happy about being moved from that spot last year he had seemingly come to accept the switch to first base.
The same apparently cannot be said of the move to second. Though he hasn’t necessarily gone public, it has been reported that Miller is not all that enthusiastic about moving to second.
The Rays, though, want and may in fact need his bat, or at least the power potential it carries, in their lineup; outside of Miller, they may be a little short on power, especially in the early going.
In addition to Evan Longoria, the Rays have power potential in first baseman Logan Morrison, right fielder Steven Souza Jr., left fielder Colby Rasmus and catcher Wilson Ramos, but the latter four all are coming off surgeries.
Morrison (left wrist) and Souza Jr. (left hip) should be ready for the start of the season, but there’s a good chance Rasmus (hip, core muscle) will need more time to get ready and the Rays are sure Ramos (knee) will.
Ramos, in fact, may not be ready to contribute even as a DH until May or possibly June, so the Rays are hoping Miller can provide some power from an unexpected power source.
And perhaps he can. New Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola is encouraging the Rays sluggers to be more aggressive, especially early in the count, and to not look for walks as much as they have in the past.
That’s an approach to hitting that’s divergent to what the Rays have done in the past, but it fits Miller’s more free-swinging style and it may even play to one of his strengths.
According to a breakdown done by FantasyAssembly.com, only a third of the home runs Miller hit last year were off pitches thrown on the inner half of the plate.
The bulk of his shots came off pitches thrown away, and in particular low and away, where Miller was able to make greater use of a new leg kick he added to his swing that provided added torque.
That leg kick also gave Miller a little more time to position his front foot, which is why he still managed to pull most of the balls he hit out of the park to right field.
Those balls left the park at a much faster rate last year, too, with Miller improving his exit velocity by five miles per hour to 92.1, according to StatCast, and increasing his hard-contact percentage by six ticks to 35.1.
All that suggests that if he doesn’t let the idea of playing second base get to him, Miller could indeed continue to hit home runs at a rate of 25-30 per year for the next year or two at least.
Miller is only 27, after all, and he just now seems to be finding his groove at the plate. If he can finally find his groove in the field, he could become an asset in more ways than one.
And if he can’t, well, the Rays have plenty of other options, including eventually playing top prospect Willy Adames at second base. In fact, it’s starting to look as though that is the Rays’ long-range option.
It’s still too soon to know, for sure, but it’s quite possible that all the Rays are asking Miller to do is fill in temporarily until Adames is ready to make the jump to the big leagues.
How long with that be? The Rays have never been a team to promote prospects too soon, and Adames, 21, just finished his first year at Double-A, where he hit .274 with 11 home runs and 57 RBI.
It’s unlikely then that Adames will make the jump this spring, but he could easily be in the big leagues by the end of the year and in place at second base for the start of next season.
That would put Miller on the move yet again, and he may need to get used to that; he is beginning to look like a player who has “super-utility” written all over him.
After all, he has yet to prove himself to be anything more than adequate in the field, but right now his bat is a weapon; for as long as it is, the Rays will find a way to get it into their lineup one way or another.