Positional flexibility isn’t a recent innovation so much as it is a concept that has been rediscovered slowly over the past decade.
While the standard for many years was for teams to build set-it-and-forget-it rosters with the same players in the same spots in the lineup and on the field, some of the best big-league teams have built themselves with enough weapons and versatility to make it difficult for their opponents to gameplan against them.
In an era of big bullpens and short benches, teams need to have players who can move around the diamond to keep their bats in the lineup, and those players need to have bats that are worthy of being kept in the lineup. This is no small feat, but it’s how players like Ben Zobrist and Marwin Gonzalez added so much value to their teams and to their own stature in recent seasons.
Zobrist’s ability to play multiple positions was a significant part of what earned him his free agent payday in 2016. Oddly, Gonzalez ended up signing at something of a discount this offseason, after months of hearing the baseball punditry ask rhetorically: "Who couldn’t use a player like Marwin Gonzalez?"
One could certainly argue that Gonzalez could have helped this year’s Blue Jays, though like many other teams, they seem as though they may be more interested in creating their own versions of these players rather than seeking out the genuine article.
At present, the Jays have several candidates who could find their role dictated on their ability to move to different positions. On the active roster, Brandon Drury has already seen time at third base, second base and right field, while in his short time since being recalled, Eric Sogard has played second, third and short.
(Given his DFA limbo status and some recent dubious defence, perhaps it is best to simply skip past Alen Hanson at this point.)
Moreover, the advancement of some of the Jays’ key young players may be dictated by their ability to demonstrate that they can play other positions around the diamond. Cavan Biggio’s bat is seemingly ready for prime time, but with a roster full of infielders at the moment, his best chance for advancement will be showing that he can man an outfield corner.
Biggio has generally played at second, and there is some notion that it is his best position. But over the past two seasons, he also saw significant time at third and first. That flexibility in notable, except that all three of those positions are currently being held down at the big league level.
In recent days, Biggio has seen himself penciled into the lineup in right field, which replicates the move made when he played in last year’s Arizona Fall League. This is a sure sign that the Jays are attempting to find a way to move him up sooner rather than later, and Biggio’s ability to show he can play the position will determine how soon he arrives.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. might be a candidate to follow Biggio’s path in an ideal world. While he has yet to demonstrate a mastery of any particular infield position, Gurriel made some strides last year under the tutelage of Luis Rivera to improve his footwork. Unfortunately, a slow start at the plate and a case of the oopsies when it came to throwing from second base landed Gurriel back in Buffalo, where he has raked.
Gurriel previously played in the outfield in Cuba, especially when playing for a national team side with an abundance of talent. Given the upside of his bat, and the uncertainty of his glove coupled with how many infielders the Blue Jays currently have, it would make sense to get a better look now at how Gurriel could handle an outfield position. Given his raw athleticism, he might even be a candidate to handle centre-field in a pinch.
The Jays’ braintrust seems to agree, with the news this weekend that Gurriel will begin to see action in the outfield in Buffalo.
Which points to a consideration that should be taken as the Blue Jays and other teams look at maximizing their flexibility in the coming years: Maybe great utility players are born, and not made.
Today’s utility players are not all glove, little bat players of yore, like José Oquendo. These are players like Gonzalez, Zobrist, or the Dodgers’ Kiké Hernandez, who play a prominent role in the offence while also providing solid defence wherever they play.
It would help the Blue Jays immensely, both in the present and in the future, if Drury, Biggio or Gurriel were able to provide the sort of versatility that would allow them to adapt to health or strategic challenges throughout the season. Scraping together those marginal wins will depend on being able to field the best and most adaptable lineup for every game.
But it is no small challenge for any of them to prove that they can fill that role as well as the best utility players in the league.