At a time when teams have expanded the bullpens and at the expense of their benches, it becomes increasingly important to have versatility built into your roster.
This year’s Blue Jays relief corps mostly consisted of eight and even nine pitchers in the pen, leaving Ezequiel Carrera, Darwin Barney, Ryan Goins and a series of backup catchers to fill in when required. And as injuries sidelined both the presumptive everyday shortstop and second baseman, the services of both Barney and Goins were required on a much more regular basis.
The state of the Jays roster was such that long-tenured stars were moved around the diamond as though they were Jose Oquendo. Jose Bautista has now seen action at first base and third base, while Russell Martin has made nine starts at third and Josh Donaldson has played four games (two starts) at shortstop.
Essentially, the short bench requires a bit of positional flexibility from a lot of players.
Moreover, a third of the regular lineup is taken up by players whose roles are somewhat limited. Justin Smoak may be a Gold Glove-calibre first baseman, but there’s no other spot on the diamond for him. Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce are both best suited to patrol the area between the on-deck circle and the batter’s box, resulting in Pearce defaulting his way into left field.
One imagines there are days when manager John Gibbons stares at the lineup card like an unsatisfying puzzle.
While it is encouraging to see Gibbons take a liberal approach to his defensive alignments where he can, one wonders if he wouldn’t be better served by having players at his disposal for whom positional flexibility isn’t an imposition, but rather, a key tool of their trade.
The rosters of this year’s primary contenders invariably include one or more players who are not only able to transition around the diamond, but also remain productive offensive options. They are everyday players, even though where they play every day is a toss up.
The Nationals have Howie Kendrick. The Red Sox have Brock Holt and Eduardo Nunez. Cleveland has Jose Ramirez, Erik Gonzalez and Giovanni Urshela. The Yankees have Ronald Torreyes. The Brewers have Hernan Perez.
The Cubs’ Ben Zobrist may be the embodiment of this role player, but the two players who best exemplify the concept of productive versatility this year are the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez and the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor.
Taylor has been a revelation this year, posting a 4.4 WAR while making starts at five spots around the diamond. With the Dodgers losing key contributors such as Corey Seager and Justin Turner at times, and the poor performance of Joc Pederson, Taylor has filled in admirably at important defensive positions while posting an .867 OPS in 513 plate appearances. He has also served primarily as the team’s leadoff hitter.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, has evolved from his very credible super-sub role to a key cog in the Astros lineup. He has posted an .883 OPS, while making starts at five defensive positions. In 121 games played this season, Gonzalez has started no more than 32 at any position, and no fewer than 10 at any position. He’s also played multiple positions in 39 games this season.
And like Taylor, Gonzalez has played key defensive positions at second, short and third when injuries to key players forced the Astros to adjust.
Players who combine this level of production and flexibility obviously aren’t common, which may only enhance their value in the era of the short bench. And it may well be that the Blue Jays thought that Steve Pearce could have played this role, given his stints at second, third and right field in recent years. The reality of his lack of defensive flexibility in his 34-year-old season has been made abundantly clear, though.
Looking ahead at the 2018 edition of the Blue Jays, where one assumes that Smoak, Morales and Pearce continue in similar roles, and where the health of Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki remains an open question, having such a player on the roster becomes that much more of a pressing matter. If the team is expected to make due with multiple sub-replacement level players in the lineup daily, the prospects for contention would appear remote.
One would presume that neither Gonzalez nor Taylor would be made readily available by their current employers, at least not without a significant return. Kendrick and Nunez are free agents, and could be desirable targets for many teams.
Within the Blue Jays system, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. could develop into an internal option for such a role. In his early years in Cuba, Gurriel shifted around the infield as well as left field, where he played for the Cuban National Team. Last season, Gurriel split time between second and short at both Dunedin and New Hampshire.
Gurriel still has much to prove in terms of his feasibility as a productive offensive player, but given the pressing need for roster flexibility, he could play a more dynamic role for the Blue Jays in the coming years.