Shortstop crop is thinning out

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 8, 2007

LAKE BUENA VISTA - The Rays weren't looking to spend a great deal on a shortstop. But with potentially attractive veterans Omar Vizquel and Juan Uribe coming off the already thin free-agent market Wednesday, it seems even more likely they'll have to make a deal and give up something to get someone to fill their biggest hole.

"There's certainly some teams willing to discuss a shortstop but, that being said, nothing's imminent," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said as the annual GM meetings wound down. "It's something that we'd like to be proactive on if we find the right fit, and if not we have a couple other areas to address as well."

The Rays are hoping improved infield defense will make their whole team better as they were tied for last in the American League in fielding percentage and had the worst ERA in the majors.

They are considering installing blue-chip prospect Evan Longoria at third and shifting smooth Akinori Iwamura to second, but the most significant upgrade could be at shortstop.

Their shortstops, primarily Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson, ranked 13th in the AL (and 27th overall) in fielding percentage and last in the majors in zone rating, a statistical estimate of how many balls they made plays on that they should have.

The question is what to do. With Uribe taking a pay cut to stay with the White Sox and Vizquel reportedly headed back to the Giants, the free-agent options - which Friedman said were not "very viable" anyway - are scant, such as David Eckstein and Royce Clayton. And the trade market is not exactly deep, either, with the Angels' Erick Aybar among the more interesting possibilities.

The lack of alternatives is a big reason the Sox retained Uribe despite some offensive concerns, GM Kenny Williams said.

"Most importantly, he catches the baseball," Williams said. "That is something that in looking at the possibilities of the trade market and the free-agent market, it just was the overriding factor for us."

Friedman, saying it was "early on" in the search, also raised the possibility of the Rays filling the position internally, which initially would mean giving another opportunity to Ben Zobrist, who hit just .155 in two stretches of somewhat regular play (and .200 in 83 career games) and made six errors in 30 games, or Wilson, who made eight errors in 50 games and hit .203 at shortstop.

Other options would be to go back to Harris, who started much of the first half but whose limited range became an issue, or accelerate the schedule for top prospect Reid Brignac, who hit .260 with 17 homers at Double A but, at 21, could use another year of development.

What they're thinking

Assuming the Rays aren't looking to make a major commitment/investment, here are four players who could be potential trade targets:

Erick Aybar, Angels: The 23-year-old was considered one of the Angels' top prospects but has been blocked at the major-league level, hitting just .239 in limited at-bats. He is versatile, and manager Joe Maddon's familiarity with him could be a plus.

Ronny Cedeno, Cubs: It's not a great sign that the 24-year-old hasn't been able to hold the job with the shortstop-short Cubs, but he could provide stopgap help.

Chin-Ling Hu, Dodgers: The 23-year-old from Taiwan hit .329 at Double A and .318 with eight homers and 28 RBIs in 45 games at Triple A. Though only 5-9 and 150 pounds, he is a good defender, and perhaps good enough that the Dodgers keep him as the successor to Rafael Furcal.

Brent Lillibridge, Braves: The 24-year-old hit .282 with 13 homers and 58 RBIs in a season split between Double A and Triple A. The Braves don't need him to play short, but he is so athletic they are considering starting him in center. The Rays' surplus of outfielders could make for a match.


Short at short?

The Rays rank among the AL's worst in terms of shortstop defense:

Category Number Rank

Fielding pct. .962 13t

Errors 25 10t

Chances/9IP 4.16 14

Double plays 105 12

Zone rating .761 14

Source: Stats Inc.