ST. PETERSBURG -- Ben Zobrist proved his worth as a utility man through most of the season, but it wasn't until he settled in at shortstop that he found the right spot.

Since Aug. 9, the first time he started at short, he's done solid defensively but even better offensively. He hit .310 with eight homers in 50 games during that stretch, with an OPS of .927.

In the 106 games prior to that, he hit just .253, with 12 long balls and an .818 OPS.

But Zobrist feels that a strong start to June was the turning point of a season that only got better when he moved to short, and he hopes for more of the same in 2013.

"I couldn't have asked the last four months of the year to go any better, considering where I was at in the first two," Zobrist said. "I'm trying to rack my brain about how I can get it going earlier than that next year, to try and help our club earlier. You do the best you can, and I just feel very fortunate I've been able to hit 20 homers again and help the club as much as I could."

With great turnover possible in the offseason and the only probable lock being Evan Longoria at third base, Zobrist is willing to play anywhere, though he wouldn't mind returning as a shortstop.

"I've really enjoyed playing short," he said. "I think they know, from my perspective, I'm open for whatever works best for our team next year."

Niemann making steady progress with shoulder

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeff Niemann has been nursing a sore right shoulder since Sept. 1, when he left his start in Toronto after just 3 1/3 innings.

In the aftermath of that outing, Niemann has been making slow progress while making sure to get rid of the inflammation in the shoulder before proceeding with regular throwing activity.

Wednesday was the first time Niemann has thrown off a mound since that Toronto start, and the 6-foot-9 right-hander said that all went well. He threw approximately 30 pitches, all fastballs, and experienced no problems.

"It was a great day. It's also bittersweet, too, to be able to say [that I'm healthy] with one day left to go [in the season]," Niemann said. "Sad and disappointing, but I'm glad we got back to the point where I'm healthy and able to throw a ball again. That's all we need to do, and once we get to that point we know we can be successful, we know we can be good."

Overall, Niemann feels much better than he did last week, and he doesn't anticipate needing to undergo an MRI or have any kind of medical procedure on the shoulder.

"I'm really confident that everything is good and all the doctors are right, and I trust that going into the offseason," he said.

Niemann plans to "stay with the program and keep doing all the rehab stuff."

Playing winter ball could also be in his future.

"Honestly, I think that is still a possibility, because I'm going to keep [pitching]," he said. "I know what I can do when I'm healthy. If I have to prove that, I will. No big deal."

When asked about the prospect of showing up in Port Charlotte, Fla., ready for Spring Training with no restrictions, he said, "One hundred percent ready to go, absolutely."

This past spring, Niemann won the fifth spot in the rotation over Wade Davis, then made six starts before fracturing his right fibula in his seventh. He finished the season at 2-3, with a 3.08 ERA.