Flexibility should be rewarded
Multi-position players need to be developed and paid well
Martin Prado was an All-Star last season as a second baseman at the age of 26. He has played all four infield positions plus right and left field, but when the Braves had to find some way to upgrade their power and couldn't afford the price of Jayson Werth or Vernon Wells, their solution was to put Prado in left and make the deal for Dan Uggla.
"If Martin weren't such a great athlete, so diligent a worker and so much a team guy, we never could have fixed our need that way," said Braves general manager Frank Wren. "It speaks volumes about how important Martin Prado's flexibility is to this team."
If something unfortunate were to knock Chipper Jones out for two or three months, Prado could now go back to third base and Jordan Schafer -- or someone -- could play left.
"He keeps us from having to be locked in any way," said Wren.
Ditto Jose Bautista. Fifty-four home runs has its obvious impact. But the fact that Blue Jays manager John Farrell could open the season with Bautista at third base, right field, left field or first base is a remarkable luxury. He could probably go back and play second base for awhile if Aaron Hill got hurt.
Then there is the team built on flexibility -- the Tampa Bay Rays. Ben Zobrist finished eighth in the 2009 American League Most Valuable Player Award race. For that same year, he was tied with Mark Teixeira for third in the league in OPS at .948. He reached base more than 40 percent of the time, he slugged .543, he's a switch-hitter and defensively he played every position but pitcher and catcher.
"To play short, second, center, right field, switch-hit and put up those numbers," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "what's more valuable than that?"
Look at this year's Rays. They would have no hope of contending -- which indeed they should do -- on a payroll of just $10.7 million more than what Alex Rodriguez will earn, if not for the flexibility created by Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman. Zobrist can play all four infield and all three outfield positions and hit in the middle of the lineup. Sean Rodriguez can play second base against right-handers. Against lefties they can sit the left-handed-hitting Reid Brignac, put Zobrist at second and, as he showed last season, Rodriguez can play any position but pitcher and catcher.
Brignac has played short, second and right field. This year, add in Elliott Johnson, a switch-hitter who can play short and second and is also a very good center fielder.
It's as if the Rays have a 30-man roster, which in today's game, when managers like keeping 12 pitchers, is crucially important.
"You don't want to get tied up," said Maddon. "You hope to avoid being stuck defensively. You like to have as many switch-hitters as possible so you can deal with the late innings and opposing bullpens."
Rodriguez would like to play one position.
"Naturally," said Maddon.
Jed Lowrie would like to settle down and play one position for the Red Sox, but as they are presently constituted, if Marco Scutaro is healthy, they may be better with Lowrie playing at least all four infield positions. Lowrie's shortstop metrics are good, but the fact that his career OPS against left-handed pitching is .944 makes him a threat who can play short, give Dustin Pedroia's foot an occasional rest, play third and allow Kevin Youkilis to DH against certain tough left-handed starters, and even play first once in awhile.
"Until he broke his leg [in 2009], I thought Antonio Amezaga was one of the most interesting players in the game to make a good team better," said one AL evaluator. "He was a very good defender in the middle of the field at short, second and center, he could run and he was an ideal extra man who allowed a manager a lot of choices."
Amezaga was let go by the Rockies this spring after trying out on a non-roster basis.
Billy Hall filled that versatile role for Boston last season, at least until Lowrie recovered from a year-and-a-half of injuries and illness. Emilio Bonafacio fills it for Florida now. That may be what Michael Young ends up being for the Rangers, if he remains in Texas. Young has won a Gold Glove Award at short, should have won one at second and was a superb defensive center fielder coming up in the Toronto system.
Mark DeRosa would like to settle down at third base, but Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, "While Mark could be an everyday player, we're a better team because of his flexibility, especially if we carry extra arms in the bullpen. Mark can play all four infield positions. I could play him at short for two or three days if I have to, and he can play either corner outfield position because he's such a great athlete."
Bochy is particularly interested in the flexibility because the Dodgers signed Juan Uribe, who could play all four infield positions.
Players look at it simply: It's easier to work at one position daily, and an everyday player at one position is going to get paid better than someone who plays seven positions.
"The way the game is today it should evolve to the point where we reward those [versatile] players because of what they mean to a team trying to win," Maddon said.
"It's only fair, and it makes sense if the idea is to win," he added.
Maddon takes the concept one step further.
"We should train and prepare these players for these roles in the Minor Leagues," Maddon said. "I know there's resistance to the notion from the development people, players themselves and their agents. But if they can work at a number of positions in the Minor Leagues, it may get them to the big leagues quicker, because they can come up and get regular or semi-regular playing time in a number of roles. The one thing that concerns me is injury, because they have to change arm angles and throwing styles. I tell young players that to make certain that when they work in the infield they use a short-arm stroke, and when they work in the outfield concentrate on using the right long-arm stroke."
The Red Sox have given the development concept a lot of thought. They have some multi-positional prospects like Derrik Gibson, Ryan Dent and Yamaico Navarro who might eventually fill the Zobrist/Uribe/DeRosa role.
"We don't want to discourage their development by their thinking we are giving up on them as everyday players, which might deter their development," said one Boston official. "But all of those guys could play a lot of positions. Navarro has a chance to be a good offensive player with Uribe[-like] pop. He played shortstop very well in the Dominican and he appears to have very good instincts in the outfield. We'll monitor this carefully."
Meanwhile, because Prado did move around in his ascension through the Braves' system, they have Uggla and can use Prado at other positions in case of injury. Bautista can go most anywhere in Toronto, and the path isn't blocked for Blue Jays prospect Brett Lawrie once his bat is polished and his defense is further improved by working with coach Brian Butterfield.
And everyone who plays the Rays thinks they have a 30-man roster.
"A Ben Zobrist or a Sean Rodriguez is as much an everyday player as Evan Longoria or B.J. Upton," said Maddon. "They should be recognized for what they mean to a winning team, and in time all the guys who fill these roles should be rewarded in kind."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.