Willie Bloomquist had what has become his signature Diamondbacks’ at-bat Saturday. After taking a strike, he doubled down the right-field line. He stayed inside the ball and found an open landing place. Kelly Johnson once said he saw the same approach every time Bloomquist hit, and he sounded envious when he said it.
Healthy again after missing virtually all of the final two months of 2012, Bloomquist appears to be back in form, and he will not give an inch in the competition for the D-backs’ starting shortstop spot, even as some national reports indicate that newcomer Cliff Pennington is the top candidate.
“That’s fuel to my fire,” Bloomquist said before leaving Diamondbacks camp to join Team USA for the World Baseball Classic.
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“I’ve never gone into the season with a mindset of being a backup. If that’s what ultimately happens, that’s what ultimately happens. But I wasn’t raised to sit and watch. Being a competitor, I don’t like watching. I always feel like I can be a guy out there somewhere helping our team win.”
Bloomquist played a major role as the D-backs’ primary shortstop the last two seasons, even if that was not the original plan when he signed as a free agent before the 2011 season. He took over as the starter after Stephen Drew’s ankle injury that July and held the job for almost exactly a year, until a lower back injury late last July limited him to two starts in August and one pinch-hit appearance in September.
Despite missing two months, he set career highs in batting average (.302) and doubles (21).
“For me to come in and give up the job I worked eight or nine years to get … that’s a pretty bold statement if I am just going to give that up. That is not going to happen. If someone is going to beat me out, they are going to have to play well,” he said.
“I know it doesn’t change the way I play. I’m going to go out and do what I can. Some days it’s going to be good. Some days it’s going to be ugly. But I’m going to go out and compete every day.”
Bloomquist, Pennington, John McDonald and Didi Gregorius are the four shortstops in major league camp, although Gregorius has been delayed by a right elbow injury and will open the season in the minor leagues, most likely at Class AAA Reno. Labeled the shortstop of the future when he was obtained over the winter in the Trevor Bauer trade, Gregorius began hitting off a tee two weeks ago and began playing catch at 60 feet late last week.
That leaves Bloomquist, Pennington and McDonald, all of whom have some credentials. If Bloomquist’s back is no longer an issue, McDonald would be a late-spring trade candidate, general manager Kevin Towers said at the winter meetings. The D-backs have talked more recently about keeping all three for the first 10 days of the regular season to protect their assets.
Because Bloomquist and Pennington both bring a lot of versatility to the roster, Towers indicated there could be some mixing and matching. Pennington played second base down the stretch in Oakland last season after the A’s acquired Drew.
“We see it probably more as a platoon-type situation at short,” Towers said earlier in spring.
The numbers align. Bloomquist, a right-handed hitter, batted .317 against left-handers and .295 against right-handers last season and is a .281 hitter against lefties in his career. Pennington, a switch-hitter, has been better against righties, hitting 60 points higher against them last season and 20 points higher (.253) in his career.
Through his 11 seasons, Bloomquist has been study in adaptability. He is one of three major leaguers since 2006 to have played at least 50 games at second base, shortstop, third base, left field and center field. He played 25 games in left in his first season with the D-backs before settling in at shortstop, where his .981 fielding percentage is fourth in the NL in the last two years. He played left field in an early spring training game, and Joe Torre made it sound as if he could play Bloomquist all over the field in the WBC.
“If he is healthy, he is certainly going to be a part of our team and play quite a bit,” manager Kirk Gibson said. “We’ll see he comes out of the WBC (healthy). We’ll move him around. It’s not like I have him slotted into having him play this many games at this position.”
Bloomquist immersed himself in core strengthening exercises to combat a slight cartilage tear in his lower back over the winter, and he also plans to make adjustments in his pregame routine, as difficult as that may be.
“I’ve always been a guy that likes my repetitions, and I’m learning that when I feel good, I’ve got to just stop right there instead of taking that extra 15-20 ground balls or 20-25 swings just to really make sure. I have to just get to a point where I feel good and trust that it is there,” he said.
“That will be a little bit of an adjustment for me. I have never been like that my whole career. But I’m not 20 anymore. I have to be a little bit smarter about things.”
The D-backs believe they pushed Bloomquist too hard last season, another reason they entered the shortstop market for Pennington and Gregorius over the winter. They seem to feel that he might be best-suited as a handyman capable of starting at several spots, depending upon who might need a break.
“I’ve never had a problem with where I’ve played,” Bloomquist said. “If it ends up being more of a utility role, that’s 100 percent fine with me. I have no complaints about it. But in my mind, there is a difference between being a utility guy playing once every 10 days and being a utility guy and playing five out of seven days.
“Early on the year before, that’s kind of how Gibby was using me as. I love that. I have zero problems with that. That’s almost makes it exciting, to where it is something different every day. Both things have challenges.