PHOENIX — Ryan Roberts, whose energetic play and flamboyant body art transformed him into a cult figure — Tatman — last season, was traded by the Diamondbacks to Tampa Bay for middle infielder Tyler Bortnick on Tuesday night.
Bortnick, a 16th-round pick in 2009, was hitting .253 with four homers, 48 RBI and 23 stolen bases at Class AA Montgomery. He has 131 stolen bases in four minor league seasons while playing almost exclusively at second base. Roberts was designated for assignment earlier in the afternoon, when the D-backs needed a roster spot to activate John McDonald.
It was a bittersweet day for Roberts, who hit 19 home runs and stole 18 bases in a career year and became a darling of the fans while playing an integral role in the D-backs’ worst-to-first run to the 2011 NL West title.
“It made me who I am,” Roberts said of his time with the D-backs.
“It gave me an opportunity to play in the big leagues. It gave me time. That’s a credit to my teammates and the fans. That’s going be the number-one thing that is going to be tough for me. I’ll definitely miss my teammates. I’ll definitely miss the fans that supported me when things were good and things were bad. That’s going to hit home the most.”
Roberts, hitting .250 with six homers this season, won the third base job last May and ran with it, becoming so popular that he was the fans’ choice for a special bobblehead night. Arm sleeves decorated with tattoos were given out in recognition of him earlier this season. His walkoff grand slam that featured an arm-pump like the one manager Kirk Gibson made famous will forever be a franchise highlight.
“Experiencing a playoff atmosphere was amazing to me. I could play baseball for 20 more years and never go back to the playoffs,” Roberts said.
“Interacting with the fans was really cool for me, too. I had a lot of people support me, making signs, buying jerseys. For me, I never thought that day would happen where I could look in the stand and see people wearing my jersey. That was really awesome.”
Roberts got off to a slow start this season, and while his batting average had returned to last year’s level, both his slugging (.427 to .357) and on-base (.341 to .306) percentages declined significantly.
“I know it’s probably not going to be a popular move,” general manager Kevin Towers said. “His contributions to our club last year were significant. I don’t know if we would have won the division last year without what he was able to do. He’s one of those guys that always found a way. That will be missed. I do appreciate what he meant to this organization. These are tough decisions.”
Rookie Ryan Wheeler and Willie Bloomquist will play third base the rest of the season, and the D-backs want to get a good look at Wheeler, who was leading minor league baseball with 90 RBI when he was promoted from Class AAA Reno last Friday.
“Kind of looking at this long term,” Towers said.
“Felt like (Wheeler) needed the ABs and the reps out there to play. With Ryan (Roberts) in there, it would have been tough to get either of them enough at-bats that we wanted. The only way a young kid is going to get better is to give him multiple at-bats and more time out there playing to let him get comfortable.”
Bloomquist started at third base against Colorado left-hander Edwar Cabrera on Tuesday, but manager Kirk Gibson said Wheeler, a left-handed hitter, would also start against some lefties.
“Hopefully our fans embrace Ryan Wheeler as they embrace Ryan Roberts. Not as many tattoos, but a good player and somebody we think has a bright future here,” Towers said.
There was significant interest in Roberts from other teams recently, Towers said. With Roberts gone, the D-backs are less likely to trade shortstop Stephen Drew by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
“People kick tires, they ask about him. I don’t blame them,” Towers said. `But I haven’t seen anything about trading Stephen Drew that will make us a better ball club.”
Roberts, who signed a $2.0125 million contract to avoid arbitration last winter, has two more years of arbitration eligibility remaining.
“On a personal level, Ryno was one of my best friends on the team. He’s going to be missed. I’m sure better things are coming for him,” said Chris Young, adding what he remembers about Roberts was “his intensity. The same things fan love about him. His passion for the game. His hustle. His heart. He wears his emotion on his shoulder and he gives it all every day. He was a great teammate. He will be great teammate somewhere else now.”
Concluded Roberts: “You never want to leave your friends. It’s tough leaving everybody. That was the greatest part of this team. Everybody was friends. Everybody got along with everybody. There were no cliques. There were no groups. That makes it the hardest. I have 25 guys to miss.”