Utility roles more important today
LAKELAND, Fla. — In his rookie season with the Detroit Tigers, Niko Goodrum spent time at first base, second base, third base, shortstop and both corner outfield spots.
The next logical step was to try him in center field, and manager Ron Gardenhire did just that during spring training this month.
“We’re just looking for places to put him. We’re going to play him everywhere,” Gardenhire said. “Except catcher. We’re not going to do that yet.”
Goodrum’s bat makes him a decent asset for the Tigers, but his versatility is what really sets him apart, and there’s increasing evidence that major league teams are putting more value on his type of jack-of-all-trades skill set. More players have been moved around the diamond in recent seasons, a sign of how important the modern utility player is to the flexibility of a big league lineup.
According to the play index at Baseball-Reference.com, 31 players appeared in at least one game last season at first base, second base, third base and shortstop. That’s the most of any season included in the data, going all the way back to 1908. The previous record was 29, set in 2017.
A record seven players last year appeared at every defensive position except pitcher and catcher. Three of them — Enrique Hernandez, Hernan Perez and Andrew Romine — actually did pitch as well.
“I think teams are recognizing that you can maximize your roster,” said Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash, whose team includes a couple of good utility players in Daniel Robertson and Joey Wendle. “The versatility is such an important use for us. We feel that we can, No. 1, keep guys in theory healthier, rested at times, and also not take away from our production in our lineup. The job is never easy but I think it certainly helps for in-game decisions.”
With relievers facing so many batters nowadays — and taking up roster spots — teams often don’t have the luxury of a deep bench of capable position players. It helps to have someone who is comfortable in a lot of different spots defensively.
And some modern strategies make versatility an obvious plus.
“Think about it: There’s shifts now,” Gardenhire said. “You’ve got a shortstop playing on the second base side, you’ve got a second baseman playing on the shortstop side. So now, more than ever, you need those guys that can play all over the place.”
A player on the roster for his glove can make himself more useful by playing a lot of positions. And a player who isn’t great defensively can make up for that a bit by being versatile. Goodrum wasn’t necessarily a defensive star last year, but he hit 16 home runs for the Tigers, and now Gardenhire has plenty of ways to put him in the lineup.
“That’s how I got to the big leagues, is being able to play everything,” Goodrum said. “That’s a tough thing to do. Not everyone can play every position. You can’t take most first basemen and put them in center.”
Goodrum was drafted in the second round in 2010 by the Minnesota Twins. For his first few minor league seasons, he spent far more time at shortstop than any other position, but by the time he reached Triple-A in 2017, he was moving all around. With Rochester that year, he started 41 games in right field, 35 at second base, 19 at third base and 14 in center field. He also played a bit at first base, shortstop and left field.
At last, Goodrum made his major league debut at age 25 in September 2017. His saga sounds somewhat typical for a utility player who took a while to find his niche. The novelty can make for a nice story, such as when Romine played all nine positions in one game two seasons ago.
But this role isn’t just for the underappreciated. Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs, last year’s MVP runner-up in the National League, has played extensively at second, third and shortstop in his career, while also appearing briefly at first and in the outfield. When the Cubs won the title in 2016, it was Ben Zobrist who was MVP of the World Series. He’s played more than 1,000 innings in his career at both middle infield and both corner outfield positions.
This year, even a former batting champ might need to show a little flexibility. DJ LeMahieu signed with the New York Yankees, joining an infield that also includes Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Troy Tulowitzki and — when he returns from Tommy John surgery — Didi Gregorius.
LeMahieu, though, is 30 years old and has a career batting average just under .300. He said when he signed that he was OK playing multiple positions, and the Yankees certainly want to use him.
“From what I’ve seen in his work, I think he’ll transition well and I think he’s going to be a good defender wherever we put him,” manager Aaron Boone said. “It’s really not that hard to envision (him) playing five out of six (days) even with everyone healthy and doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
LeMahieu, a three-time Gold Glove winner and two-time All-Star, hasn’t played anywhere other than second base over the past four seasons with Colorado. He did get some time at other infield spots earlier in his career.
“I guess it just depends on the matchup, the pitcher, how guys are doing and how guys are hitting,” LeMahieu said. “I’m sure as a manager, it’s a good place to be in, when you have that many options.”