Hanley Ramirez, Ben Zobrist and the 10 Best Utility Men in Baseball
Managers love players who can move around the diamond. Having such flexibility allows them to give tired or injured players days off, while keeping a productive bat in the lineup.
The ability to learn a new position opens up many opportunities for players as well. Aging shortstops may prolong their careers by moving to second or third base. A la Cal Ripken Jr. A team might also employ multiple impact players with the same natural position if one of them is able to learn a secondary spot, like when Alex Rodriguez moved to New York, where Derek Jeter was entrenched at shortstop.
These slides will not include players who only play outfield and have merely moved between outfield spots. Nor will they include catchers who play occasional games at first base to rest their knees.
Michael Young, Philadelphia Phillies
Michael Young has played over 350 games each at second base, shortstop and third base, as well as 77 at first base. The new Phillie will find regular at bats all around a very old and gimpy infield, likely giving Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins days off, while serving in a platoon at third base.
Young is a career .301 hitter over 13 seasons, having eclipsed 500 walks, 1000 runs and 2000 hits, sitting just 16 RBI short of 1000 and 23 home runs short of 200. He is a seven-time All Star and twice has been in the top ten in MVP voting.
At 36 years old, Young's best days are behind him, but he is still capable of getting on base and playing four defensive positions, a luxury for any manager.
Marco Scutaro, San Francisco Giants
Marco Scutaro's career has taken an interesting turn in recent years. From 2002-2010, in 990 games, he was a .267 hitter, with a .721 OPS. His defensive flexibility kept him in lineups despite sub-par offensive numbers.
In 2011, at 35 years old, Scutaro batted a career best .299 with a .781 OPS. After batting .271 through the first 95 games of 2012, Scutaro was traded to the Giants and batted .362 for the final 61 games with an .859 OPS. He went on to collect 21 hits and score 11 times in the postseason, helping the Giants to their second World Series title in three years.
Scutaro parlayed his late-season surge into a three-year deal with the Giants, but even if his best offensive output is in the past, Scutaro will continue to provide value as a utilityman throughout the length of the contract.
Jeff Keppinger, Chicago White sox
Over an eight-year career, Jeff Keppinger has 707 hits, 179 walks and just 173 strikeouts. He is a career .288 hitter, and batted a career-best .325 as a Tampa Bay Ray in 2012.
Keppinger has at least 150 starts at second, third and shortstop. In 2012, he played 73 games at third base filling in for injured star Evan Longoria, but also played 27 at second and 27 at first base. Keppinger has hit consistently wherever his coach decides to put him. He is a .282 batter as a second baseman, .279 at third base and .292 at shortstop.
Keppinger signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox over the offseason, receiving $12 million for three years. While he will start out as primarily a third basemen in Chicago, continued struggles by second bagger Gordon Beckham, or the emergence of Brent Morel at third could move him elsewhere.
Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals
An unorthodox inclusion on this list, Tyler Clippard is not the average one-and-done reliever. While most of his 2012 appearances were in the closer role, coming in for the ninth inning, his career reflects his flexibility and the advantage that has given his team.
In 2011, 28 of his 72 appearances extended beyond one inning, many times pitching two complete innings. He was 3-0 with a 1.83 ERA that season, making his first All Star Team. Additionally, in 2010, his longevity was evidenced by 11 wins, which tied him with Chad Billingsley, Chris Carpenter and AJ Burnett among other notable starts.
While most relievers are limited to one inning of effectiveness due to their max effort given on every pitch delivered, Clippard allows Nationals' manager Davey Johnson to use him as an effective bridge to Drew Storen and new closer Rafael Soriano as early as the fifth inning if necessary.
Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers
Another utility pitcher, Alexi Ogando burst onto the scene coming out of the bullpen in 2010 for the Texas Rangers. Making 44 appearances, all out of the pen, Ogando went 4-1 with a 1.30 ERA, 8.4 K/9 and served as a perfect setup for Neftali Feliz.
In 2011, Texas moved Ogando to the rotation, where he made 29 starts, finishing 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA and 1.136 WHIP, over 169 innings, including two relief appearances. Ogando's 2012 was shortened by injury.
In 2013, Texas plans to use both Ogando and Felix in the rotation with Joakim Soria and Joe Nathan solidifying the back end of the bullpen. If both reliever-turned-starters stay healthy, they could combine with Yu Darvish to form a deadly 1-2-3 of strikeout pitchers at the top of the rotation.
Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals
Danny Espinosa hit 17 home runs and stole 20 bases in 2012 while playing 126 games at second base for the Nationals and another 36 at shortstop, giving double-play partner Ian Desmond the occasional day off.
While Espinosa has played predominantly at second base in his career, 259 of his 266 minor league games were played at shortstop, and that experience will serve the Nationals well going forward. The Long Beach State product has 38 HR and 37 SB over the last two seasons and, while he still strikes out too much, his flexibility should allow Washington to keep him on the field more often than not going forward.
The Nationals middle infield combo combined for 42 home runs and 41 steals last season and Washington fans can look forward to ample production up the middle for years to come.
Martin Prado, Arizona Diamondbacks
The fact that Martin Prado was the central piece in the Atlanta Braves trade for Justin Upton tells you how valuable he has been in recent years as a utility man.
Prado has 191 career games at third base, 209 at second and another 222 in left field. While he primarily played left in 2012 for Atlanta, Prado was also useful as a fill-in for future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones at third base and Dan Uggla at second. A career .295 hitter, Prado batted .301 in 2012, with 10 HR, 17 SB and 81 R.
Prado will likely fill the full-time third base role in Arizona, but also gives them the ability to rest outfielders or second baseman Aaron Hill as needed.
Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays
Ben Zobrist exploded onto the scene in 2009 at 28 years old, batting .297 with 27 HR, 91 RBI, 91 R and 17 SB, while playing 91 games at second base, 70 in the outfield and 13 at shortstop.
He has played at least 150 games in each of the three seasons since, with over 70 R and RBI in each season. Going into 2013, he is coming off back-to-back 20 HR seasons and has now played over 175 games each at second base, shortstop and right field.
With Evan Longoria healthy and Desmond Jennings developing into a threat at the top of the order, Zobrist figures to once again fill roles as needed and play a critical role in the Rays attempt to stay relevant in the vastly improved A.L. East.
Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers
Between 2006, when he was 22 years old, and 2010, Hanley Ramirez hit .313 with a .906 OPS, averaging 25 home runs, 112 runs scored and 39 stolen bases per season. In the two seasons since, he has batted .252 and has battled injuries as well as a move to third base, a dysfunctional Miami franchise and eventual trade to Los Angeles.
The Dodgers have the option of moving Ramirez back to his natural shortstop in 2013, where his career OPS is 113 points higher, but speedster Dee Gordon still has high expectations as a potential 60-plus steal leadoff hitter, and if he can learn to reach base with more frequency, he may force Ramirez to stay at third.
Ultimately, Ramirez is in a lineup surrounded by stars similarly down on their luck in Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford returning from injury and Adrian Gonzaez, who hit a career-low 18 home runs in 2012. If there was ever a time for the phenom Ramirez to reemerge, this is the time and this is the team.
Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
If Michael Young and Marco Scutaro are the past, Manny Machado is the future and the future in Baltimore looks very bright.
After playing 203 of his 208 minor league games at shortstop, and giving Rangers' top prospect Jurickson Profar a run for the title of top shortstop prospect in the game, Machado moved to third base upon his promotion in 2012 due to the Orioles commitment to JJ Hardy. Machado made a smooth transition to third base and performed admirably in 51 games at 19 years old, hitting seven home runs and adding 26 RBI and 24 runs scored.
While he is likely to remain at third base for 2013 barring an injury to Hardy, there is no doubt Machado is the shortstop of the future for Baltimore and Orioles fans can daydream about multiple future division titles led by a lineup of Machado, 26-year-old catcher Matt Wieters, and 27-year-old center fielder Adam Jones.
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