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March 20, 2014 at 8:39 AM

Coyle expands versatility by learning third base

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After injuries cut short a promising 2013 campaign and kept him in Salem for a second straight season, Sean Coyle is adding versatility for his climb up the ladder by learning third base this spring.

“They said, ‘You’re going to get all your work in at second base, and with your extra work you’re going to get some reps in at third, and we’ll see how it goes,’ ” said Coyle, who has played second base since he was drafted in 2010.

So far, Coyle said, the transition has been an easy one — and it has not taken away from his work at second.

“I have early work more days than not for infield, and I’ll get some reps in more days than not at third base,” he said. “Then I’ll mix in with the bunt drills and do things at third, because I’ve played second base for a while, so those things are pretty routine if you’ve been doing it a while.”

While a second baseman typically has responsibilities on every play, Coyle said third base is almost relaxing by comparison. He would field cut-off throws from the outfield and turn double plays on ground balls to the left side at second, but his job at third is mainly to field what is hit to him. Since minor league games began last week, he’s seen plenty of chances to do that.

Coyle has played only second base and designated hitter in his three appearances in major league games this spring, collecting a pair of doubles and two RBI in three at-bats. But for most games in minor league camp, including Wednesday’s match-up with the Orioles, Coyle has played third.

Coyle’s skill set is likely to fit the position, with his range and quick feet giving him the reaction time necessary for the hot corner. He showed fluid motions and good instincts in the morning infield session, and got to most balls hit in his direction during Wednesday’s game.

His arm is strong enough for the position, but Coyle said throwing is something he’s had to adjust to when moving across the diamond. This showed on one throw, made on the run while charging a groundball, that got past the first baseman.

“I’m definitely trying to be more on top of the ball to get a truer flight so I’m not throwing a two-seamer over there — get a little more carry on my ball,” he said. “Other than that, it’s not all too different from second base. It’s just about that first step a little bit more and committing to your instincts.”

While a second position will add versatility to his game, it will also create a natural spot in the lineup for him this year should he and second baseman Mookie Betts break camp with Portland, which is a likely scenario.

Betts, who hit .341/.414/.551 with 22 extra-base hits in 51 games following his promotion from Greenville in July, took over as the every day second baseman for Salem last season after a lingering knee injury kept Coyle out of the lineup for two mid-season months.

Coyle had rebounded from a disappointing 2012 season with a torrid April last year, hitting .317/.377/.730 with seven home runs before May 1. But as a knee injury wore him down, his average dipped to .248 before he hit the disabled list in early June.

He returned to Salem in mid-August, but an elbow injury limited him to designated hitter duties for the rest of the month. Coyle hit .220/.355/.500 in 50 regular-season at-bats after Salem activated him from the DL on August 13. The elbow injury cost him the final week of the regular season and first round of the Carolina League playoffs, but he was activated for the Mills Cup Championship series, and in three games, Coyle collected five hits and seven RBI to power Salem to a sweep.

He said his off-season conditioning program, which he split between Chapel Hill, N.C. — where his brother, Tommy, a Rays minor leaguer, played in college — and his Pennsylvania home, was targeted towards keeping him on the field for all of 2014.

“I spent the whole offseason just doing things to stay on the field here, from my diet to the way I worked out to the way I lifted,” Coyle said. “I dropped a little weight and I feel as healthy as I’ve ever been.”

 Photo Credit: Sean Coyle by Kelly O'Connor.

Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JonMeoli.