TORONTO – Identifying them after the fact is the easy part. By the time super-utility players become productive big-leaguers, they’re filling up the boxscore and playing all over the diamond. Pretty hard to miss, in other words.
Here’s the challenge for big-league teams, though. By the time these players reach the level of a Ben Zobrist, a Chris Taylor, or a Marwin Gonzalez, they’re exceptionally tough to acquire. Obtaining them means spending big with trade chips, cash or both.
Unless, of course, there were another way to add a versatile, offensively capable player to your roster. What if teams could find these players before they break out? An answer to this question would be extremely useful for MLB front offices looking to make the most of their rosters.
Granted, it’s highly probable that a straightforward answer doesn’t exist — if it did, chances are some team would have discovered as much by now. So instead of searching for a simple catch-all, we’ll welcome the likelihood that no such thing exists.
Starting with the absolute basics, this player needs to throw right-handed. Otherwise, playing second base, shortstop or third base is out of the question. From here, it becomes more challenging to identify traits these players share before their breakouts.
“I would actually take it away from physical ability,” says Chaim Bloom, the senior vice-president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. “A lot of those guys it’s selflessness — a willingness to embrace those types of roles, to do what a team might need on a given day.
“There are guys who can thrive on the unpredictability of ‘I might have to be here one day and here the next,’” adds Bloom, who worked in the Rays front office for Zobrist’s entire tenure with Tampa Bay. “Especially with Zo’ for us, that was a big part on what made it work.”
Along those lines, Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi points to work ethic. Zaidi, who acquired Taylor from the Mariners for pitching prospect Zach Lee in June of 2016, credits Taylor for working diligently on his swing during the 2016-17 off-season. The resulting improvement, a 2017 year during which Taylor generated 4.8 wins above replacement while playing five positions, helped the Dodgers reach the World Series.
“That’s certainly not something you can predict — that a player’s going to makeover his own game in a way that takes his performance to another level,” Zaidi says.
Because attributes like selflessness and work ethic are among the factors driving breakout seasons, background work matters a whole lot. Gathering information on free agents is a little easier, because you can talk to the player and his representatives to gauge his openness to the role you envision. Trade candidates are typically harder to research.
“You have to do your homework and you have to find out as much as possible,” Bloom says. “(Yet) knowing that, you have to have some humility about how much you actually can know and that the player’s attitude could change.”
Beyond those soft skills, team officials say a track record of offensive success in college or in the minors can foreshadow future success. For example, Taylor has a .314 average and .400 on-base percentage at the minor-league level.
“He was a very good college player, he was a very good player in the minor leagues,” Zaidi recalls. “He struggled at times in the big leagues, but made himself better.”
Jose Pirela also struggled early in his big-league career before breaking out in the second half of the 2017 season with a .288/.347/.490 batting line and 10 home runs at five positions in San Diego. When Padres scout Steve Lyons urged GM A.J. Preller to acquire Pirela before the 2016 season, he pointed to his bat speed and also to his offensive success in the minors and in winter ball.
“Really the only level he hadn’t hit yet was the big leagues,” recalls Preller.
Offensive track record also factored into the Diamondbacks’ pursuit of Ketel Marte – now a useful, versatile player if not one in the Taylor/Gonzalez tier. After the 2016 season, Arizona GM Mike Hazen asked the Mariners for Marte despite some mixed results against big-league pitching. He had just posted a .610 OPS in 119 games, but a year earlier, he had caught Hazen’s attention by posting a .753 OPS as a rookie.
“We liked what he had done as a 21-year-old at the major-league level,” Hazen says. “It’s extremely difficult to perform like he did.”
Hazen also highlights Marte’s athleticism, and that’s a point worth exploring given another common trait shared by many of the best super-utility types. When it comes to max sprint speed, Marte, Pirela and Taylor are all within the top 10 percentile of runners as measured by Statcast. That footspeed allows them to play up-the-middle positions capably and it doesn’t hurt on offence, either (Gonzalez ranks among the slower runners in the game, though, so it’s not as though speed’s an absolute must).
Lastly, it’s worth noting that many of these players didn’t have a clear position for much of their professional careers. By now many of these seemingly positionless players are capable of playing respectable defence all over.
So if you’re a big-league executive looking for the next Chris Taylor, be prepared for a long search. Look out for a selfless, hard-working, athletic player who throws right-handed and has a history of offensive success against advanced competition.
Oh, and it helps if you have a little margin for error, too. After all, the Dodgers decided to break camp without Taylor this spring even though he met every last one of those criteria.
“I don’t think there’s a simple formula there,” Zaidi says. “If we had seen this breakout coming, we probably would have put him on our opening day roster.”