Rays position analysis: Shortstop

Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist (right) appeared at five different positions last season while Yunel Escobar received a bulk of the appearances on shortstop.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason has arrived, and the time has come for the Tampa Bay Rays to study what went right and wrong from a season that ended short of October.

In the coming weeks, we’ll break down the Rays at each position. The review will include highlights and lowlights for the players that saw a majority of the action there, and we’ll touch on the possibility of their returns.

This week, we focus on shortstop, where Yunel Escobar received a bulk of the appearances. Known for his flair when playing well, the native of Havana, Cuba, wasn’t as effective on defense this season. He was less consistent in the field, and he must improve in the area next year.

Here’s a closer look at the play from Rays’ shortstops during the 2014 season …

YUNEL ESCOBAR

What he did right: He was better at the plate in the season’s second half, posting a .300 batting average in 50 at-bats in July, a .238 average in 105 at-bats in August and a .322 average in 59 at-bats in September. He finished hitting .258 with seven home runs and 39 RBI for the year. His true value comes when he’s sharp on defense, but serviceable offense is a plus whenever it’s provided.

Where he needs to improve: He experienced a large decline defensively, committing 16 errors in 136 games played at shortstop. The errors were the most since he had a combined 18 with the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves in 2010. His fielding percentage dropped from .989 with the Rays in 2013 to .965 in the most recent season. His defensive WAR was a bad minus-1.7.

Contract status: Signed a two-year, $13 million extension through the 2016 season with a $7 million team option for 2017 ($1 million buyout).

Tampa Bay Rays position analysis

Likelihood of return: He’ll return, but Tampa Bay needs more consistent defensive play from him. He was too unreliable at times, and he must return to the form that made him a sparkplug of the infield during the 2013 campaign.

BEN ZOBRIST

What he did right: He’s the Rays’ most effective versatile presence, so it’s hard to imagine their lineup without him. Zobrist appeared at five different positions last season, in addition to serving as designated hitter seven times. He played in 31 games at shortstop, mostly when Escobar was out with a sore right shoulder in late June and early July. As a switch-hitter, Zobrist provided manager Joe Maddon flexibility within the lineup. A two-time All-Star, Zobrist has gained his team’s trust because of his ability to embrace a range of roles.

Where he needs to improve: Versatility remains Zobrist’s best trait, but he can afford to sharpen his defense. He committed two errors at shortstop, an increase from the one he had at the position in 2013. His fielding percentage at shortstop declined from .980 in 2013 to .973 last season. In addition, his defensive WAR declined from 1.3 in 2013 to 0.9 last season.

Contract status: The Rays exercised a $7.5 million team option for 2015.

Likelihood of return: It was a no-brainer for the Rays to pick up the team option. There was chatter during the trade deadline that Zobrist was a candidate to be dealt, but fortunately for Tampa Bay, nothing came of the rumors. Few players in the lineup offer as much flexibility on offense and defense. Though he played in 11 fewer games than 2013, had a lower batting average than the previous season (.272 compared to .275) and produced fewer runs than the year before (52 RBI compared to 71), he remains an asset.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.