Rajai Davis’s reputation as a baseball player was built on speed.
He an accomplished base stealer and last year, began the season with the Toronto Blue Jays as their starting centre fielder, a position not normally reserved for plodders.
But Davis was dogged by injuries followed by uncertainty after the Blue Jays acquired Colby Rasmus in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of July, and Rasmus took over in centre.
A new year and a new spring training camp has arrived, and Davis is now being viewed as a utility outfielder for the Blue Jays – a tag he does not especially like, but probably one he won’t be able to outrun no matter how fast he might be.
“I don’t go in looking at myself as a utility player,” said Davis, 31. “I look at myself, I’m an everyday player. And I always have that mindset. I’m an everyday player and I’m going to play.
“Whether I’m playing or not, I’m going to be prepared to play every day.”
He finished 2011 with a .238 batting average (some 35 points under his career average) and 34 stolen bases, more than double the total of any other player on the Jays roster. Davis fared better against left-handed pitchers, hitting .288.
Barring injury, it doesn’t appear there will be an overabundance of opportunity for Davis, who got into 95 games last year before his season came to a halt in early September with a torn hamstring. (He also missed time after he turned an ankle in Toronto’s first game of the season.)
But it doesn’t sound like he’s going to give up without a fight.
“When it comes down to it, the best men are going to be out on the field,” he said. “And that’s the team I want to play for. If I’m not one of those players, then so be it.
“And whatever I can do to help the team, that’s going to be great. I know I can help this ballclub win and I expect to.”
There were times last season when his speed electrified fans and energized the team. One May game against the Boston Red Sox stands out: Davis stole second base, then third on consecutive pitches in the 10th inning and scored on a sacrifice fly in the Blue Jays’ 7-6 victory.
But there were also times when Davis, on defence, was a bit of a mystery, his oft-circuitous routes to fly balls allowed some to drop in safely.
It was a problem that plagued the Blue Jays outfield and is an area the team is looking for a marked improvement this season.
“We were probably 30th when you break out all those metrics of what our outfield defensive performance was,” manager John Farrell said.
Rasmus has the lock on the starter’s position in centre, with Jose Bautista, who began 2011 at third base, in right field. One of either Travis Snider or Eric Thames will be starting in left.
That would leave the outfield utility role to Davis, whose speed off the bench in tight games, along with his ability to handle left-handed pitchers with some success, will be a definite asset.
Farrell said he is looking forward to having a talent such as Davis in his lineup – and healthy – for an entire season.
“Prior to him tearing that hamstring late in the year – and I don’t want to limit a guy’s ultimate role – but he was very good against left-handed pitching,” Farrell said. “And he was a disruptive force late in the game. And he really took to that role.
“We had a number of left-handed bats in the outfield where his at bats against right-handers kind of diminished a little bit. But he’s a valuable part of our club.”
Davis said he’s willing to do whatever he can to help the Blue Jays and if that’s in a utility role, so be it. But he warned that you never know how it all might work out.
“Things are subject to change,” he said. “ Obviously, they changed with me. And guess what? It’s going to change again with some other players. You just don’t know how it’s going to work out.
“Anything can happen.”