Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Players who show their value all over the diamond
By Jerry Crasnick
The NBA hands out a Sixth Man Award each year, and the NFL recognizes a special teamer and kick returner with a trip to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii each February.
Meanwhile, the most team-oriented player in baseball must settle for a heartfelt thanks from the manager and an "I Played Five Positions and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt" T-shirt in his closet.
No one even knows what to call the guy who stashes several gloves in his locker, shows up each day oblivious to where he'll be on the field -- if he plays at all -- and runs the constant risk of looking foolish for the sake of the club. Is he a utility player, a super-utility player, a super sub or simply multidimensional?
"He's a jack of all trades and master of none," said the Cubs' Mark DeRosa, a Mark-of-all-trades who is pretty good at several.
One thing is for certain: He's becoming more prevalent than ever.
In 1992, only seven big leaguers (Mariano Duncan, Casey Candaele, Lenny Harris, Jeff King, Dale Sveum, Rene Gonzales and Skeeter Barnes) played at least 20 innings at all four infield positions or three infield positions and the outfield. According to research by the Career Sports & Entertainment agency, which represents DeRosa, a total of 18 players achieved the feat in 2007.
It's easy to see why. With teams routinely carrying at least 12 pitchers, benches have grown shorter and managers are desperate for players capable of plugging several holes. Versatile bench players are also pivotal with about 60 MLB position players currently on the disabled list.
The role requires a special set of attributes.
"From a physical standpoint, it's athleticism, a nose for the ball and baseball instincts," said a National League scout. "But the biggest thing is, you have to buy into the role. You can't look at it as a condescending move to change positions. You have to look at it as a valuable trait and an asset that you possess."
In this week's installment of "Starting 9," we pay tribute to players who've made a contribution at three or more positions this season. If you're looking for such bastions of versatility as Chone Figgins and Casey Blake, sorry: They've played only two.
He's a jack of all trades and master of none.
--Mark DeRosa about the qualities of a utility player
Mark DeRosa, Cubs (1B, 2B, 3B, LF, RF)
When the Cubs signed DeRosa to a three-year, $13 million contract in 2006, they envisioned him stepping in as the team's regular second baseman. But he's become far more valuable as manager Lou Piniella's resident security blanket.
DeRosa, a former University of Pennsylvania quarterback, provides an interesting quandary. He's enough of an offensive threat (.299/.384/.464) to hold his own over 500 at-bats. But when he spends too much time in one spot, the MLB talent evaluators are bound to start nitpicking.
"When I played shortstop, people were like, 'We don't know if you have the range to play there,' " DeRosa said. "At second I heard, 'Your actions are long and you don't turn the double play as quick as some guys.' Then I went to third and I didn't hit the home runs a normal third baseman hits. There are reasons why you're good, but not that good at every position."
DeRosa, who has done everything but pitch and catch in the big leagues, is mildly intrigued by the prospect of playing all nine positions in a game. He would join Cesar Tovar, Campy Campaneris, Scott Sheldon and Shane Halter, four American Leaguers, in that small fraternity.
"If Lou came up to me and said he thought it would be fun -- if we had a 15-game lead and the race was over -- it would be interesting for a day," DeRosa said. "It's never crossed my mind to ask."
Inge is an athletic freak of nature. He reportedly can dunk a basketball and hit a golf ball 350 yards, and he once entertained his teammates by kicking a 50-yard field goal during a promotional event at Ford Field in Detroit. Rumor has it that Inge also enjoys blasting pregame fungoes off the roof of the Metrodome in Minnesota.
Inge was a shortstop and relief pitcher at Virginia Commonwealth University before the Tigers selected him in the second round of the 1998 draft with an eye on shifting him to catcher. He switched to third base in 2004 and developed into a Gold Glove-caliber defender at the position.
When Detroit acquired Miguel Cabrera in December, Inge might have been traded if not for his substantial salary. Now the Tigers are glad they kept him. Inge played center field in Curtis Granderson's absence, moved back to third when the Tigers shifted Cabrera to first base and recently began splitting time behind the plate with Pudge Rodriguez.
During spring training, Tigers coach Andy Van Slyke told ESPN.com's Jayson Stark that Inge is the only player in the majors with the talent to play all nine positions at a high level. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Inge, Dale Murphy and Craig Biggio are the only players who've ever started at both catcher and center field on Opening Day. That's pretty select company.
Vazquez, who played for five teams before age 30, has been a revelation this season. He's helped Texas post a 27-20 record since Hank Blalock went down with hamstring and wrist injuries, and has been productive enough at third base that Blalock is now free to move to first upon his return from the disabled list.
The Rangers initially signed Vazquez for his glove, but he hit .368 in May and routinely went deep into counts. He ranks among team leaders with an average of 4.25 pitches per plate appearance.
"He's been one of the toughest outs in our lineup," said Thad Levine, Texas assistant general manager. "When teams get to the 8-9 spot in the order and they have to face him, it's just a grind. He's been monumentally valuable for us."
The Texas front office has given manager Ron Washington a versatile roster. Rookie German Duran has also played four positions, and the Rangers have four outfielders -- Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, Marlon Byrd and Brandon Boggs -- capable of playing left, center and right. Milton Bradley would make it five, but the Rangers have confined him primarily to DH to take the pressure off his surgically-repaired right knee.
Ryan Freel, Reds (CF, LF, RF, 3B, 2B)
Freel might have been at the top of this list a few years ago. In 2004, he logged 505 at-bats while appearing at second base, third base and all three outfield positions. He stole 37 bases and posted a .375 on-base percentage at leadoff that year.
But he's 32 now, and all those head-first slides and violent encounters with fences are taking their toll. When Freel suffered a hamstring injury two weeks ago, it marked his sixth trip to the disabled list since 2003. There's a fine line between hustle and over-exuberance, and sometimes Freel has difficulty straddling it.
We talked to two scouts who used the word "reckless" in describing Freel's style of play. "He can play all over the place -- as long as he doesn't kill himself," said one.
Still, Freel has the full respect of his peers.
"He's one of those guys you root for and always want to have on your team," said DeRosa.
Ramirez, dubbed the "Cuban Missile" by manager Ozzie Guillen, supplanted Juan Uribe as Chicago's principal second baseman three weeks ago. But when Paul Konerko had to be scratched from the lineup with a rib injury Sunday against Colorado, Nick Swisher moved to first base and Ramirez played center. He banged out two hits in a Chicago loss.
"He has a chance to be a very good player," said an NL scout. "He has very good bat speed and a strong arm. But he's suffered a little bit by changing positions. It's tough to take a first-year guy and move him all over the place."
At a rangy 6-3, 185, Ramirez has generated the obligatory Alfonso Soriano comparisons. While he doesn't hit the ball as far or run as fast as Soriano did at age 26, he has smoother actions and a much better defensive game in the middle infield.
So where will Ramirez wind up long-term?
"I think he's a center fielder waiting to happen," said another NL scout.
Don't be so sure. The White Sox are comfortable with what they've seen from Ramirez at second base, and he has a chance to be Chicago's Opening Day shortstop in 2009 if Orlando Cabrera leaves through free agency this winter.
Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays (1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF, DH)
The people of Oakland grew fond of Scutaro during his four years with the franchise. He produced enough big hits to prompt Athletics fans to devise a "Marco Scutaro" cheer reminiscent of the Marco Polo chant that kids play in the pool.
At 32, Scutaro is making a career of bailing out teams in crisis mode. In Oakland, he filled in for Bobby Crosby, Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis while they were on the disabled list for extended periods. This year he's helped save the Jays after injuries to Scott Rolen, David Eckstein and Aaron Hill.
Say this for Toronto manager John Gibbons: He's not one to let utility guys rot on the bench. Joe Inglett has also played five positions and made a cameo at DH this season.
Darin Erstad, Astros (1B, LF, CF, RF)
Houston has two dependable, multipurpose infielders on its roster in Mark Loretta and Geoff Blum. But we'll give the nod to Erstad, who has hit .316 while spelling Lance Berkman at first base and Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence in the outfield.
Erstad came to appreciate the value of versatility while watching Chone Figgins play several positions in Anaheim. His willingness to accept a bench job last winter was a concession to reality: When Erstad filed for free agency, potential suitors made it clear that 300-350 at-bats were all he might get.
"This is definitely what the Astros said I was going to do," Erstad said. "I mean, how much first base are you going to play with Lance Berkman there? Not a whole lot."
The stat guys have made a human piņata of Erstad since his 240-hit peak with the Angels in 2000, but club management and his teammates love him because he's such a pro and values winning above all else. Given his checkered injury history, this bench role could prolong his career over the long run.
"I never took extra players or utility guys for granted," Erstad said. "But to go through it now and do what they're doing, I'm really getting a taste of it. And it is not easy."
The Indians signed Carroll with the intention of having him bounce around the diamond at the behest of manager Eric Wedge. It hasn't quite worked out that way.
First Asdrubal Cabrera earned a ticket to Triple-A Buffalo by hitting .184 in 52 games. Then Josh Barfield, summoned from the minors to play second base, went on the disabled list with a finger injury after two games. That left Carroll as Cleveland's second baseman du jour. Judging from his 11-for-14 binge against Minnesota and San Diego last week, he has no plans to relinquish the job anytime soon.
Carroll was a personal favorite of Frank Robinson in Washington, and Jose Guillen once called him the most intelligent player he's ever seen. He's 12-for-14 in stolen base attempts the last two seasons, and he's averaged 4.12 pitches per plate appearance in his career.
"I've always liked what he brings energy-wise, and his ability to give you a quality at-bat and move runners," said a scout. "He's a very unselfish player."
Eric Bruntlett, Phillies (SS, 3B, 2B, RF, LF)
Greg Dobbs has been a huge offensive presence off the bench for the Phillies. But it was Bruntlett who stepped in and filled the void when Jimmy Rollins went down for 28 games with an ankle injury in April and May. The Phillies posted a 16-12 record with Bruntlett as their everyday shortstop.
Two attributes make Bruntlett particularly valuable. The first is his ability to move from the middle infield to the outfield and play not just adequately, but proficiently. He gets excellent jumps and takes precise routes to the ball no matter where you put him.
Bruntlett also possesses the ability to play several positions in the same game with no noticeable dropoff. His versatility was never more apparent than in Houston's marathon Division Series-clinching victory over Atlanta in 2005, when manager Phil Garner spent 10 innings shuttling him between shortstop and center field.
Augie Ojeda, Diamondbacks: "He is as surehanded a defender at all three positions as I've ever been around," manager Bob Melvin says of Ojeda, who is hitting .329 in 73 at-bats at second, short and third.
Aaron Miles, Cardinals: A career .283 hitter with a 6.00 ERA in three innings as a pitcher.
Maicer Izturis, Angels: Cesar's younger brother finds a way to contribute wherever manager Mike Scioscia puts him.
Omar Infante, Braves: The former Tiger gives Bobby Cox some insurance at several spots.
Mark Loretta, Astros: Steady on the field and terrific in the clubhouse.
Chris Gomez, Pirates: This unsung guy is with his eighth team and in his 16th season. He's hit .313 while playing all four infield positions for manager John Russell.
Others of note: Eric Hinske, Rays; Clint Barmes and Jeff Baker, Rockies; Damion Easley, Mets; Alberto Callaspo, Royals; Brendan Ryan, Cardinals; Willie Bloomquist and Miguel Cairo, Mariners; Wilson Betemit, Yankees; Alfredo Amezaga, Marlins; Edgar Gonzalez, Padres; Ronnie Belliard, Nationals; Nick Punto, Twins; Craig Counsell, Brewers.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.