By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
TAMPA — If first impressions truly do last a lifetime, then Tampa Bay Rays fans will always love Rickie Weeks Jr.
Weeks, a non-roster invitee who was signed to a minor-league deal early in February, began his Rays career with a bang.
In his first five games in a Tampa Bay uniform, Weeks went 7-for-11 with two home runs, three doubles nine RBI and 10 runs scored.
“I wanted to establish myself,” Weeks said of his quick start. “A lot of times in spring training, you want to start off a little slow and see pitches, but I didn’t have that opportunity. I wanted to come in and try to swing early and show I can play defense.”
The 34-year-old had no choice but to come out on fire to start the spring.
He’s attempting to do what just 21 players in franchise history have ever done – make the Opening Day roster as a non-roster invitee (he could actually be one of three players this year, but that’s another story for another time). Not only that, but he’s doing it at a position he as virtually no experience playing.
Weeks has played in 1,101 regular season games in the Major Leagues. He’s played 1,044 at second base and 57 in the outfield. Not one time has he appeared at first base in a game that has counted.
“I feel good over there,” Weeks said of playing first base, which he did once during spring training when he was with the Seattle Mariners. “I feel like I’m playing naturally. You don’t want to think about too much stuff. The first couple of games maybe (I over thought things), but now, I feel like I’ve been there for years. Now, I’m just trying to perfect the craft.”
It’s not just his ability to hit and field that has nearly guaranteed him a spot on the roster. It has just as much to do with both his work ethic and the impact he has on his teammates.
“Just his presence is maybe the most important thing,” Manager Kevin Cash said. “Everybody has raved about him in the clubhouse and dugout. He’s been a great addition. … It’s pretty impressive to watch him take a round of batting practice. A lot of people take batting practice and it’s a loose environment. Rickie kind of stands off to the side and that’s his time to work.”
Mallex Smith is one of the many players Weeks has impacted so far this spring. Weeks is someone Smith looks to for veteran leadership.
“He teaches you how to grow up in the game,” said Smith, 23. “He’s been around for a long time, so he’s not going to mislead you in any way. He just kind of gives good advice, not just on the field, but off the field, too.
“He checks in on me. He picks on me, too, but he also takes care of me. He provides good, stern leadership.”
Being a leader isn’t something Weeks set out to do. It’s something that just comes naturally, he says.
Weeks was an all-star in 2011, but to him, it’s not the individual performances that have stood out. It’s the success his Milwaukee Brewers had from 2007 to 2012, specifically the two playoff runs in 2008 and 2011.
“The biggest moment has been getting to the playoffs,” Weeks said. “When you get to the playoffs, there’s no other feeling like it. That’s what I try to tell the younger guys.”
According to reports, Weeks will make $1.5 million this year with the Rays, with an additional $600,000 available in incentives. It’s not the only offer he had this offseason, but the one he says made most sense.
Not only did he have a real chance at making the team, which he has capitalized on, but Tampa is close to his home in the Orlando area.