Versatility Personified: MLB's Premier Super-Utility Players
Fans in every city throughout the league know full well who the stars in baseball are. They're instantly recognizable with their gaudy stats, household names, and exorbitant contracts. As if immortals descended from Mount Olympus to thrill us with their power, grace, and athletic prowess, these men sell the jerseys and pack the stadiums.
Teams aren't just constructed of high-profile stars however. Players possessing a variety of skill sets are vital to a well-balanced team. Of course, a general manager would love to fill his 25-man roster with five-tool players at every position, but that's not realistic. All baseball players have their own unique strengths and weaknesses that they bring to the team, and the manager must strike the perfect balance in order to achieve success.
Enter the super-utility player. Often possessing a vast range of fundamental baseball talents, these ultra-versatile players help to bridge the gaps in the team and offer their manager increased roster flexibility, while also providing cover for injuries and the ability to make important personnel decisions as unique situations may dictate.
There are plenty of players who are athletic and coordinated enough to play a few different positions. These are professional baseball players after all. Many guys grew up playing in various spots throughout their youth, and since they usually aren't very far removed from those days, they can often recall the necessary skills to at least cover a position or two somewhat adequately.
Super-utility players are more than that though. They're not simply a guy you can move from third over to first, or a corner infielder with the ability to play left field if called upon. These ultra-versatile performers possess the skills necessary to play a multitude of positions, and often one of the more specialized, premium spots such as short-stop, center-field or even in a pinch, catcher.
Often, these super-utility players shine in this versatile role for only a limited time, as the best of them usually graduate to full-time status at a particular position at some point in their careers.
Over the last several years, we have seen a slew of fantastic super-utility guys who provided so much value to their teams, that management found it increasingly difficult to keep their names out of the lineup on an everyday basis.
Players such as Chone Figgins, Marco Scutaro, Mark DeRosa, Brandon Inge, and Mark Loretta have all excelled over the last decade in a super-utility role for their respective teams. Loretta is now retired, but the remaining guys have all gone on to varying degrees of success as regular players with mostly one clearly defined position.
Another type of versatile player, guys like Darin Erstad, Mark Kotsay, Nick Swisher, and Lance Berkman, have all bounced around the entire outfield, while also putting in time at first-base, before generally settling on one position after several seasons of the nomadic lifestyle.
Increasingly, those in the game have begun to appreciate the role that these unique players bring to their teams. We even witnessed one of these guys named to the National League All-Star team.
Let's examine a few of baseball's top super-utility players while they still hold that title, before they settle down in one position and we have an entirely new generation of versatile ball players emerge.
Ben Zobrist - Tampa Bay
After his dramatic breakout season of 2009, when he finished eighth in American League MVP voting, Ben Zobrist didn't seem destined for an extended stay amongst the ranks of baseball's super-utility players.
Clearly, a guy who posts a batting line of .297/.405/.543, including 27 HR and 91 RBI, with an OPS+ of 146 and 7.1 WAR, needs to be rewarded by seeing his name on the lineup card daily. The fact that he produced to such an extent, while making starts at all three outfield positions as well as every single infield position in 2009, is rather phenomenal.
The Rays intended to provide him with stability in 2010, in order to keep his potent bat in the lineup and to give him some peace of mind. 2010 has seen Zobrist spend the majority of his innings in right field, but injuries and a flexible roster have allowed him to see significant time at second, in addition to a handful of starts in center and at first-base.
While still an offensive threat, Zobrist's offensive production has suffered a drop-off from his 2008-09 levels, but much of that can likely be attributed to back problems he has experienced throughout the season.
Maybe he feels stifled in a more defined role, craving the freedom of starting in seven of the nine positions around the diamond.
Whatever the reason for his diminished power production this season, Zobrist still offers Joe Maddon a versatile weapon that he can deploy in a variety of locations. His .351 weighted on-base average, .371 on-base percentage, and 22 stolen bases in 24 attempts still make him a very solid contributor and a player to watch as Tampa Bay tries to overtake the Yankees in the second half of 2010.
Omar Infante - Atlanta
Truthfully, this selection could have also gone to Omar's Atlanta Braves teammate, and fellow 2010 National League All-Star Martin Prado.
With the departure of Kelly Johnson to Arizona though, Martin Prado seems to have found himself a mostly permanent home at second base for the Braves. If that situation changes, Prado will surely find himself back near the top of this list.
Besides Prado's regular second base gig, Omar Infante offers superior versatility anyway. Across his nine big league seasons with the Tigers and Braves, Infante has played 281 games at second, 223 at short-stop, 100 at third, and 100 more between all three outfield positions.
His 2010 All-Star campaign has seen more of the same, with him starting games at second, short and third, as well as in left and right field for Bobby Cox's Braves.
Over the last three seasons, Omar has blossomed into a solid fill-in bat, hitting .307/.351/.403 with an OPS+ of 101. Nothing spectacular, but combined with the ability to play six positions, it suddenly becomes all the more valuable.
Aside from short-stop, Infante is merely adequate defensively at his various other positions. With the recent addition of Alex Gonzalez, Infante figures to see little time at his best defensive position for the time being. With Prado taking ownership of the regular second base gig, Infante will have to settle for occasional starts around the infield and filling in for the injury-prone Chipper Jones. Fortunately, the National League will offer him ample pinch-hitting opportunities to continue to provide value in a utility role.
Wherever he finds himself, Infante has certainly carved himself a niche as one of baseball's premier super-utility players. And for this year at least, can count himself among the games All-Star caliber players.
Maicer Izturis - Los Angeles (Anaheim really)
Throughout his long tenure as manager of the Angels, Mike Scioscia has developed a skill for fostering roster flexibility and maximizing the talents of his team's role players.
In the years surrounding the Angels' only World Series victory in 2002, Scioscia benefited from having several ultra-versatile players on his roster that he could use to transform his lineup on a daily basis, optimizing it according to specific match-ups and game scenarios.
One such player, Scott Spiezio, a utility man from 2000-03, could slot into first, second, or third-base, as well as either corner outfield position. During the same years, Darin Erstad played Gold Glove defense in center field, while occasionally playing first-base, and when injury concerns necessitated a full-time move to first, Erstad also won a Gold Glove there.
Perhaps the ultimate super-utility player, Chone Figgins was also a member of Scioscia's clubs from 2002-09, providing ultimate versatility, starting games at second, short, third, and all three outfield spots over parts of eight seasons in Anaheim.
The 2006 season in Anaheim witnessed the arrival of yet another super-utility type player, Maicer Izturis. From the dawning of his Angels career, Maicer has spent nearly equal time shuttling between second, third, and short-stop. He's even made a couple appearances in the outfield, but only for a handful of outs.
Whether serving as backup to the young Erik Aybar, providing cover for the injury-prone Howie Kendrick, or starting in place of the ineffective Brandon Wood, Izturis constantly finds ways into the Angels lineup. His glove is well-suited for stable backup work at all three positions, but his bat is good enough for him to start as a middle infielder on many teams around the league.
Swinging to a .280/.344/.397 line in his Angels career, Maicer doesn't offer much pop, but he has a low strikeout rate, a patient eye, and a surprising ability to produce runs. For his career, Izturis is a .328 hitter with runners in scoring position, providing ample offense for a utility infielder. He is also a quality base-runner with an eye for a swiped bag, stealing 63 bases over six seasons for a success rate of 78 percent.
Scioscia and the Angels certainly recognize the value in Maicer, as they signed him to a three year deal worth nearly $10 million to keep him in Anaheim through the end of the 2012 season.
Felipe Lopez - St. Louis
For whatever reason, over the course of his ten year career, Felipe Lopez has never been able to stay in one place for long. The 30-year old switch-hitter has changed teams six times, finding himself in Toronto, Cincinnati, Washington, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Arizona, and back in St. Louis again in 2010.
Lopez is familiar with getting comfortable in locations around the baseball diamond; I guess it makes sense for him to continually familiarize himself with new baseball cities as well.
So far, in 2010, Lopez has only had to move around the infield, starting games at second, third and short-stop. Filling in admirably for the injured David Freese, he has seen his most game action at third-base thus far in 2010. Never one to stay in one place for long, Lopez was even called on to pitch in relief early in April.
Earlier in his career, he was most often deployed at short, but dabbled in second and third-base, and gradually played more and more games at each. During stints in both Washington and St. Louis in 2008, he expanded his repertoire and began to see occasional time in left field, further enriching his value as a utility player.
His performances haven't always coincided with his potential ability, but Lopez has had some truly great seasons for a journeyman utility player. As recently as 2009, he hit .310/.383/.427, with a 111 OPS+, along with 88 runs scored.
2005 saw Lopez peak offensively, as he boasted a standard batting line of .291/.352/.486, with 23 HR and 85 RBI, scored 97 runs, a career-best OPS+ of 118, and a .360 wOBA. He was named an All-Star that year, representing the Reds, and was also awarded an NL Silver Slugger as primarily a short-stop.
Lopez's 2010 production hasn't so far reached the heights of his 2009 or 2005 campaigns, but he has provided near league average offense and defense while supplying his team with abundant versatility in his ability to play multiple positions. He has been a valuable member of Tony LaRussa's Cardinals, and possibly one day he'll earn the right to set down some roots, in one spot on the field, as well as one city to call home.
Jerry Hairston Jr. - San Diego
While he may not be solely responsible for the dramatic resurgence of the long suffering San Diego Padres, one cannot discount the contributions of the primary utility man on the current best team in the National League.
Hailing from a baseball family, a third-generation Major Leaguer himself, Jerry has been instilled with a team-first attitude, always willing to do the little things in order to win ballgames. In his case, the little things include playing every position but pitcher and catcher. It has been said that he may even be able to suit up as an emergency backstop if the need happens to arise however.
Beginning his career as a regular second baseman, Jerry has evolved in an effort to continually add value to whatever team he plays for. After playing solely second through his first six big league seasons, he began to migrate to other positions in 2004, seeing starts at second, third, and all three outfield spots.
He continued moving between those five spots, with the very occasional action at short as well. Interestingly, as Hairston has gotten older, he has increasingly seen more time at short stop. For the Padres this year, he has actually seen more action at short than he ever has in his career, playing often for the struggling Everth Cabrera.
The Padres have needed him at second, third, short, and the corner outfield positions, using his many talents to plug gaps at various times en route to a 60-42 record, good for tops in the National League.
Hairston earned the right to sign with San Diego as a free agent, alongside his brother after splitting 2009 between Cincinnati and the Yankees. After excelling as a Red for parts of two seasons, the Yankees traded for him at the July 31, 2009 deadline, viewing him as a potential missing piece to their puzzle. Down the stretch, the Yankees used Hairston around the horn in the infield, as well as all three outfield positions. His versatility even got him a start in a World Series game, helping the Yankees win game two, en route to their 27th championship in franchise history.
Rarely a top-notch offensive threat, Jerry Hairston Jr. epitomizes utility on a baseball diamond. He offers solid or even above-average defense at nearly every position he plays. Always providing patient and hard-fought at-bats, he excels at the small game, bunting, stealing bases, and handling the bat well in hit and run situations or when he must move a runner over. Managers would love to have a team full of players like Hairston, fully capable of all the fundamental aspects of the game
He won't wow you with his stats, but Hairston Jr. certainly gets the job done as one of the most versatile utility men in the league today.
Bill Hall - Boston
After floundering somewhat in a small utility role for Milwaukee during his first few years, Bill Hall began playing regularly for the Brewers in 2004. He played at second, third, and short, but still struggled with the bat at times.
Then, in 2005, he began to gain attention as a player to watch as he hit .291 with an .837 OPS, OPS+ of 116, while stealing 18 bases, still splitting his time over three positions.
2006 saw Hall explode, crushing 35 home runs, driving in 85, with an .899 OPS, and a career high 4.3 WAR, while serving mostly as Milwaukee's starting short stop. He still saw occasional action at second and third, and also began branching out into center field.
Over the next two seasons in Milwaukee, he became the full-time center fielder in 2007, playing the entire year there, before returning to only second and third in 2008. He saw a massive decline in production throughout 2008-09, eventually clearing waivers and being traded to the Mariners in late August 2009. He was traded again, this time to Boston, just a few months later over the offseason.
After a few seasons of less than mediocre offensive production, Hall has been revitalized in a true super-utility role for the Red Sox. Due to the rash of injuries throughout the squad, Terry Francona has used Hall at second, third, short, and all three outfield spots. Filling in often for injured regulars Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Mike Cameron, Hall has returned his bat to near league average levels, and has a respectable OPS of .765 with 11 home-runs. He's even added a perfect inning pitched to his resume this season.
With many regulars on the way to recovery, Hall may soon see his playing time cut into, but the fans in Boston should be thankful for his ample contributions to the effort of keeping the team afloat in light of the abundant injuries the 2010 Red Sox have suffered.