Chris Coghlan: The Next Great Super-Utility?
While most utility players are used primarily for defense, very few are able to hit for both average and power while playing multiple positions.
Darin Erstad did it from 1997-2000, averaging 18 home runs and hitting for a .303 batting average while playing first base, centerfield, and left field. If that wasn't enough, he also averaged 21 stolen bases.
In the end, he went to two All-Star Games, won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, and garnered enough votes to finish in the top 15 in MVP voting twice over that span.
The problem with Erstad's case? Playing three positions (two of which are in the outfield) doesn't usually qualify someone as a super-utility player.
In his defense, left-handed players can't play any infield position other than first base and he was able to play two vastly different positions (first base and center field) at a level worthy of a Gold Glove.
Alexei Ramirez is trying to do the same right now. Last year, he hit 21 home runs and put up a .290 average. He also stole 13 bases on his way to finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting.
He played at second base, shortstop, and centerfield for the White Sox last year, but only started eight games at short and center combined.
In the early goings of 2009, he has yet to play anywhere other than shortstop. His days as a utility man seem to be over before they even started.
Brandon Inge is also trying to do it, but has yet to do both in the same season. His best attempt came in the 2004-2007 seasons when he averaged 18 home runs and put up a .258 average.
But his case falls short because he was only a utility player for two of those four years. In 2006 and 2007, he only played third base. Still, he is an athletic freak that can most likely play any position on the field well.
The best super-utility so far has been Mark DeRosa.
From 2006-2008, DeRosa averaged 15 home runs and hit at a .291 clip. At this same time he was logging time in left field, right field, and at each infield position.
If not for Ozzie Guillen, Keith Lockhart, Walt Weiss, Rafael Belliard, Jose Hernandez, Rafael Furcal, Ken Caminiti, Marcus Giles, and Vinny Castilla, he would have likely been a larger piece of the Braves puzzle early in his career and put up those kind of numbers much sooner.
Now, there might be another player ready to tackle the challenge of being a hard-hitting super-utility player in the big leagues.
Like Inge, he was a high draft pick. Inge was drafted in the second round and he was a first-round supplemental pick.
Like Erstad, he hits left-handed and has shown the ability to steal bases consistently despite lacking great speed.
Like DeRosa in his prime, this player stands at 6'1" and 195 pounds. He also draws criticism for not having the perfect set of tools for any one position, but is able to play each one well.
Like all three players, he played his first professional season at the age of 21. Unlike any of them, he had two hits in his big league debut.
That debut came in Colorado on Friday for 23 year old Marlins prospect Chris Coghlan.
Although he has only played second and third base in professional baseball, Coghlan was a high school shortstop and is expected to get playing time in the outfield for the Marlins. In fact, the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him out of high school as a catcher before he went on to be a third baseman at Ole Miss.
His ability to hit for power at the big league level has been questioned, but he has put up power numbers in the minors better than those of DeRosa or Erstad and comparable to Inge.
His minor league batting averages have been much better than DeRosa or Inge at the same age and only a few points below those of Erstad.
His quiet, patient approach has made him the only one of the four players that didn't strike out more than he walked in any one minor league season. It was only in 2007, his first full season in professional baseball, that he didn't walk more than he struck out. Instead, the two numbers were tied at 62.
In addition to his smart approach, his smart baserunning has made him a base-stealing threat. In fact, adding Brandon Inge's minor league-best 15 stolen bases, Mark DeRosa's best 13, and Darin Erstad's 11 together only gets you five more than Coghlan's 34 swipes from last year.
He'll never be a flashy player, but the Marlins' prospect will be a very smart and productive player in Major League Baseball.
Right now, he faces a situation similar to that of DeRosa's years in Atlanta. There are plenty of quality infielders in the organization.
Hanley Ramirez has a stranglehold on the shortstop position, Dan Uggla has the upper hand at second base, and Emilio Bonifacio has the raw ability that will find him plenty of playing time in the infield.
Jorge Cantu can play first, second, or third base and will likely hold a starting position somewhere if he stays healthy and continues to hit.
In addition to them, Wes Helms, Ross Gload, and Alfredo Amezaga will also be fighting for playing time in the infield and the Marlins' farm system is ready to produce more infield talent.
Gaby Sanchez, a corner infielder, will likely get a shot once he's healthy and Matt Dominguez is only a few years away.
With all this competition, it's no wonder why Coghlan is getting thrust into the outfield.
So long as he maintains a hot bat, which I believe he will, he'll get chances on the field wherever they can fit him.
There will almost certainly be an adjustment period at any new position he plays, but be patient Marlins fans. It will all be worth it in the end.
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