Ben Zobrist has long been admired by Rays fans, Joe Maddon and baseball analysts for his ability to shift seamlessly between second base and right field and play well at both positions. You can add a new position to his résumé: He started three of Tampa Bay's past four games at shortstop, the first time he's played there since 2009.
"It gives us our best offensive lineup, no question," Maddon told MLB.com. "If we don't do that, I don't feel good about the offense."
Zobrist came up as a shortstop, so it's not like he's completely inexperienced playing there, although his defensive metrics when he played shortstop regularly from 2006 to 2008 weren't great (-15 Defensive Runs Saved in about 107 games worth of innings). With Evan Longoria back, Maddon made the move to get his best hitters in the lineup. Longoria has been the designated hitter, with Matt Joyce moving to right field. With a lefty on the hill for the Twins on Sunday, Joyce was on the bench with Zobrist back in right field and Sean Rodriguez at shortstop.
Maddon's lineup flexibility will increase even more when Longoria is ready to resume playing third base and Luke Scott returns from an oblique strain. It will be interesting to see how Maddon maneuvers everyone around once the Rays are back at full strength. Jeff Keppinger has hit well enough -- .323/.377/.445, including .429 versus left-handers -- to keep playing, at least in a platoon role. His range at second base is lacking, so against left-handers Maddon could keep Ryan Roberts there and use Keppinger at first base (in place of Carlos Pena) or DH, with Zobrist playing shortstop or right field. Against right-handers, you're likely to see Joyce in right and Scott at DH, with Zobrist at shortstop and Roberts or Keppinger at second base. Sam Fuld could also play left field in place of Desmond Jennings.
In this era of 13-man bullpens, teams rarely platoon at more than one position. But it's likely that Maddon enters September with only three players at set positions -- Longoria at third base, B.J. Upton in center field and either Pena at first base or Scott at DH. That flexibility is rare, but Zobrist allows Maddon to dig into his mad genius bag of tricks.