Zobrist, Baez, and Beyond: Turning Versatility into Opportunity

As we inch closer and closer to the Cubs breaking camp, there’s a quiet development happening in Mesa, nearly as quiet as the mime who led team warm-ups on Tuesday. According to ESPN’s Doug Glanville, Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez has been fielding a certain request from a number of young players: “Teach me another position.”

It’s not something you hear about often, guys just looking to add another position to their arsenal. While trying out different roles in the minors is not unusual, this sort of positional experimentation is typically initiated by coaches and rarely requested by players themselves. After all, you dream of being the everyday shortstop or the everyday right fielder; you don’t dream of becoming the humble utility guy or the platoon workman.

It’s actually quite the astute move on the part of these young Cubs, implied to be current minor leaguers. It’s a tactic which reflects shifting league-wide trends in roster construction and upward-shifting demand for versatile position players.

It starts with pitching. Prominent bullpens are becoming a fixture in an age of pitch counts and third-time-through-the-order-paranoia, and the 2015 Kansas City Royals certainly made a strong case for letting relievers shoulder a bigger load. While 20 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for teams to carry a total of ten pitchers on their active roster, 12 has since become the standard, and in 2015, at least a third of the league dabbled in having 13.

The corresponding drop in bench size to four or even three spots (one of which is taken up by your back-up catcher) makes the modern necessity of utility players clear. If a guy can make the jump to super utility, able to cover both infield and outfield positions, all the more desirable.

But what is also changing is the idea that utility players are necessarily bench players at all. Brock Holt made history last year, becoming the first All-Star to have started at seven or more positions before the break, and he’s not alone in seeing significant playing time while moving all around the field. Writing for FOX Sports, Russell A. Carleton noted:

“In 2015, 18 players appeared in at least 81 games and played at least five games at four different positions. From 2010-2014, the numbers of players fitting that description had been eight, 10, 12, 11 and 12. Of the 18 players who wore at least four hats, eight of them also wore a fifth hat…up from four in 2014.”

Bringing things back to Chicago, this conversation would be incomplete without Ben Zobrist, the Patron Saint of Everyday Utility. For Zobrist, versatility was a foot in the door to making a team at the start of his career, and he believes that more players could thrive in a similar role if they’re willing to pursue it.

“Even a few years ago when I started doing it, most people didn’t think it would be good for their careers,” Zobrist said. “Now they’re seeing: ‘I’m a utility player. It’s worked out really well for my career.’ I think a lot of guys are going to see that and want to do it more.”

Following in his footsteps this year will be Javier Baez. Once the heir-apparent to the Cubs’ shortstop job, Baez is now slated to back up every infield position as well as play in the outfield. Despite not having a permanent home on the field, he should still see plenty of action manning multiple platoons, because the Cubs’ preparations for a projected long season include making sure everyone gets some rest along the way. Theo Epstein told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers this week, “I don’t think we’re looking for any player to play 155 games, even the Heywards and Bryants of the world.”

Of course, in order to transcend the strictly-bench role as Zobrist has and Baez is expected to, a player must possess the batting skills to make his presence in the order worthwhile. According to Joe Maddon, one skill can actually feed the other.

“I like when a young guy comes up like that and plays multiple positions. I think it takes emphasis off of his offense,” Maddon said recently of Baez. “I think you might see him actually hit better under those circumstances.” And Maddon should know, having spent years around Zobrist during his time managing the Tampa Bay Rays.

So what lies beyond Zobrist and Baez? That will be up to the young Cubs currently on the outside looking in with their view of the major leagues obscured by a major positional logjam. The already young Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell look to occupy spots in the infield for years to come with help from Zobrist and Baez, and then there’s the outfield, where Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward have their own solid stakes.

League-wide trends or not, that’s probably motivation enough to look for an alternate path up to the big leagues. But it must say something about the special feeling surrounding this team that players are actively willing to look outside their preferred position just for the chance to become a part of it.

Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports.

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