Rays need Bartlett to become a nuisance

The story starts with a manager standing at the top of the dugout, glowering across the infield at an annoying little sandspur of a player who keeps getting in the way.

By Gary Shelton, Times Sports Columnist
Published February 19, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - The story starts with a manager standing at the top of the dugout, glowering across the infield at an annoying little sandspur of a player who keeps getting in the way.

Even now, Joe Maddon remembers his anger. Even now, he remembers his frustration. Most of all, he remembers that he didn't like this kid named Jason Bartlett very much.

Funny, isn't it, the way love stories begin?

These days, whenever Maddon talks about Bartlett, his new shortstop, he does not slow down for punctuation. His adjectives spill over one another, fast and effusive, as he counts the ways Bartlett can help the pitchers and the defense and the baserunners and, yes, the victory total.

A few months ago, however, Maddon was ready to throttle Bartlett.

And, perhaps, that is the highest praise of all.

It was April 15, and the Rays were playing the Twins in Minnesota. Twice, the Rays tried to steal second. Twice, runners beat the throws from the catcher. Twice, they were called out. Both times, Bartlett had blocked the base with his leg, keeping Aki Iwamura and Rocco Baldelli - who both slid head-first - from reaching the bag.

"I was irritated," Maddon said, laughing at the memory. "I was wondering what he would do if we came in feet (read: spikes) first. And then we traded for the guy, and all the negatives became positives."

There are players such as this in sports, spark plugs and irritants, players who will not go away until they have driven the opposing manager wiggy. Players who are loved by their teammates and loathed by opposition.

If Bartlett turns out to be one of those, well, it's a good start.

If he turns out to be the shortstop the Rays have never had, even better.

Odd, but when people tend to speak about the Delmon Young trade these days, they talk about Matt Garza and overlook Bartlett. But if the reward is going to be greater than the risk to this trade, Bartlett is going to have to be the impact player the Rays believe him to be.

Eventually, Bartlett will be judged by how he plays behind the bag and by how he plays in the hole, by how accurately he throws and by how much he hits. For Bartlett, a college third baseman who was a 13th-round draft pick, the expectations have never been greater.

Maddon suggests that Bartlett is "one of the top five" shortstops in the American League. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman says "he has a chance to be among the best in the game." It is heady praise for a player whose 26 errors led major-league shortstops last year.

So why all the errors? Is it that Bartlett's range allows him to get to more balls and therefore make more errors? Is it as simple as Bartlett's sore neck and shoulder led to too many bad throws?

"I don't want to blame anything," Bartlett said. "I had a bad year, but I'm a great shortstop."

We'll see. If he is, Bartlett could hold down his position for a half-dozen years. From their first trade (for Kevin Stocker), the Rays have searched for an impact player at short. They never have found him.

Yet, with their young pitchers, no team needs a great shortstop more. It's tough enough to get hitters out without giving them extra outs.

"The trickle-down effect a shortstop can have on your pitching staff is immense," Friedman said. "You're talking about more pitches for your starting pitcher, which prevents him from going deeper in the game, which taxes your bullpen more, which affects you the next night because your bullpen is tired."

Maddon will tell you that it was unmade plays, more than errors, that plagued the Rays last year. He says there was an average of a play a game the Rays should have made but didn't.

"On a scale of five, we were about a two on defense," Maddon said. "This year, we should be a three-plus to a four. Eventually, we'll be a five."

It starts with Bartlett. It starts by getting to a ball another shortstop wouldn't have. It starts with making the crucial play at the crucial times.

Along the way, it wouldn't hurt if Bartlett could make another manager or two glare across a field in anger.