It’d admittedly be a stretch to say that versatile, offensively capable players like Chris Taylor and Marwin Gonzalez are a necessity for teams with designs on a World Series appearance, but super-utility types do help teams in a few ways.
They cover multiple positions, give their managers options ahead of or even within games and provide legitimate offence—more than the take-what-you-can-get variety offered by many bench types.
This type of player will be on the Toronto Blue Jays’ off-season wish list considering the possibility that Troy Tulowitzki and/or Devon Travis will again be sidelined for part of 2018. On paper it’s an ideal fit, and yet these super-utility types are often as hard to obtain as they are useful. Free agency doesn’t offer much selection, and the teams that have them aren’t keen to surrender them in trades.
Acquiring someone like Taylor or Gonzalez likely requires some creativity, then. Maybe that means finding a bounce-back candidate poised to recover from a poor season. Maybe that means finding a breakout candidate whose performance hasn’t caught up to his skills. Either way it’s a considerable challenge that has the potential to pay off in a big way.
Here’s a speculative look at 12 players who could fill this role for the Blue Jays. For the sake of simplicity they’re sorted according to their 2017 wins above replacement. As a group, these players are versatile, speedy and at least somewhat intriguing offensively …
Jed Lowrie, Athletics
Contract status: $6 million salary in 2018 | Age: 33 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 153 games, .277/.360/.448, 14 HR, 49 2B, 4.0 WAR | 2017 positions: 2B, 3B
In 2017, Lowrie quietly had one of his best seasons yet. The switch-hitter doubled 49 times as Oakland’s primary second baseman. One downside here: he hasn’t played much shortstop since 2015.
Josh Harrison, Pirates
Contract status: under contract for $10.25 million in 2018 with club options for 2019 ($10.5 million) and 2020 ($11.5 million) | Age: 30 | Bats: right | 2017 stats: 128 games, .272/.339/.432, 16 HR, 26 2B, 3.3 WAR | 2017 positions: 2B, 3B, LF, RF
Pittsburgh has an abundance of versatile players in Harrison, Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez. But Harrison’s not cheap anymore, so the small-market Pirates could look to free up payroll by trading him. If they do, they probably can’t market him as a shortstop—he has barely played short at all in the last five seasons.
Considering the Blue Jays’ other needs and payroll obligations, they might not be comfortable spending more than $10 million on a utility type.
Javier Baez, Cubs
Contract status: controllable through 2021 via arbitration, MLB minimum salary in 2018 | Age: 24 | Bats: right | 2017 stats: 145 games, .273/.317/.480, 23 HR, 24 2B, 2.9 WAR | 2017 positions: 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, RF
Like teammate Ian Happ, Baez offers a tantalizing combination of versatility, power and team control. Of course he has trade value for those very reasons, so it wouldn’t be easy for the Blue Jays (or any other team) to pry this tagger extraordinaire away from the Cubs. Doesn’t hurt to dream, though.
Scooter Gennett, Reds
Contract status: controllable through 2019 via arbitration, projected 2018 salary of $6.1 million via MLB Trade Rumors | Age: 27 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 141 games, .295/.342/.531, 27 HR, 22 2B, 2.4 WAR | 2017 positions: 2B, 3B, LF, RF
A power surge led to a career-best year for Gennett, who made baseball history with a four-homer game in June. Seven months after joining the Reds on a waiver claim, his trade value has increased substantially. As for his defence, Gennett has lots of big-league experience at second, but none at short.
Jose Pirela, Padres
Contract status: controllable through 2022 via arbitration, MLB minimum salary in 2018 | Age: 27 | Bats: right | 2017 stats: 83 games, .288/.347/.490, 10 HR, 25 2B, 2.0 WAR | 2017 positions: 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, RF
A year ago the Padres non-tendered the speedy Pirela then re-signed him to a minor-league deal. Now that looks like one of their best moves of the off-season.
He was an impact player after a June promotion, primarily as San Diego’s left fielder, so he would presumably be tough to acquire even if the rebuilding Padres are willing to sell. While Pirela has extensive experience at shortstop in the minors, he hasn’t played there at the MLB level.
Ian Happ, Cubs
Contract status: controllable through 2023 via arbitration, MLB minimum salary in 2018 | Age: 23 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 115 games, .253/.328/.514, 24 HR, 17 2B, 1.8 WAR | 2017 positions: 2B, 3B, LF, CF, RF
With six years of control remaining and early success against MLB pitching, Happ has substantial trade value. While it’s conceivable that the Cubs could listen on Happ to obtain pitching, they’d have reason to expect a huge haul. Worth noting: Happ doesn’t have professional experience at shortstop.
Yangervis Solarte, Padres
Contract status: under contract for $4.125 million in 2018 with club options for 2019 ($5.5 million) and 2020 ($8 million) | Age: 30 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 128 games, .255/.314/.416, 18 HR, 21 2B, 1.3 WAR | 2017 positions: 1B, 2B, 3B, SS
Solarte’s history of providing league average offence at tough-to-fill positions makes him a useful player. At age 30 he’s not quite as easy to dream on as some others on this list, but he spent considerable time at second, third and short and his contract’s team-friendly.
Eduardo Nunez, free agent
Contract status: free agent | Age: 30 | Bats: right | 2017 stats: 114 games, .313/.341/.460, 12 HR, 33 2B, 24 SB, 1.2 WAR | 2017 positions: 2B, 3B, SS, LF, RF
A right knee injury ended an otherwise productive season for Nunez, but he’s not expected to need surgery. He’s a capable bat and can handle multiple positions, so it’d be a surprise if the Blue Jays don’t show some interest after the best offensive season of his career.
Ketel Marte, Diamondbacks
Contract status: controllable through 2022 via arbitration, MLB minimum salary in 2018 | Age: 24 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 73 games, .260/.345/.395, 5 HR, 11 2B, 1.1 WAR | 2017 positions: 3B, SS
Marte’s speedy, optionable and affordable. He’s an experienced shortstop who has played centre at the MLB level and while he didn’t hit big-league pitching all that well in 2017, he posted a .905 OPS at triple-A. He appeared to play his way into the Diamondbacks’ plans with a strong second half, but with Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed also in place, Arizona has some depth up the middle.
Could the Blue Jays persuade the Diamondbacks to part with Marte? It’s a possibility worth exploring. From the outside looking in, Marte’s an ideal target—more realistic target than Happ or Baez, but with a truly intriguing skillset.
Jonathan Villar, Brewers
Contract status: controllable through 2020 via arbitration, projected 2018 salary of $3 million via MLBTR | Age: 26 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 122 games, .241/.293/.372, 11 HR, 18 2B, 23 SB, 0.1 WAR | 2017 positions: 2B, CF
Villar regressed this past season after a breakout 2016 year during which he led the NL with 62 stolen bases and posted an .826 OPS. A switch-hitter, he offers above-average speed and spent most of the 2016 season at shortstop. However, he’s far from a sure thing at the plate.
Late this summer, the Brewers GM David Stearns seemed unsure about what to expect from Villar. “How do you judge him?” Stearns asked the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in August. “I think it’s the right question. I just don’t have a good answer for you.”
Jurickson Profar, Rangers
Contract status: controllable through 2020 via arbitration, projected 2018 salary of $1.1 million via MLBTR | Age: 24 | Bats: both | 2017 stats at triple-A: 87 games, .287/.383/.428, 7 HR, 25 2B | 2017 positions: 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF
Reading between the lines, it appears that the Rangers will strongly consider moving Profar this winter. He hasn’t put it together in parts of four seasons at the MLB level and he’ll be out of options next spring. That said, the former top prospect played well at triple-A and could benefit from a change of scenery.
Danny Espinosa, free agent
Contract status: free agent | Age: 30 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 93 games, .173/.245/.278, 6 HR, 10 2B | 2017 positions: 1B, 2B, 3B, SS
Espinosa’s flaws are evident: he strikes out too much, even by today’s forgiving standards, and his once-impressive power numbers dipped in 2017. To his credit, though, he’s a switch-hitter who was trusted to play shortstop for a full season as recently as 2016. If the Blue Jays miss out on more appealing options, they could take a look at Espinosa, who will presumably be available on a minor-league deal.