Versatility Counts In Era Of Short Benches

Positional flexibility enabled prospect Ian Happ to fit into the Cubs' framework and earn an early callup. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

BOSTON—Starting pitchers throw fewer innings today than ever before—just 5.6 per start this season. With the corresponding emphasis on relievers, the overall bullpen ERA has climbed steadily from 3.82 in 2014 to 4.36 today.

"Optionable" has become part of the bullpen vocabulary. Fungible arms get shuttled from Triple-A to the majors and then get optioned back to Triple-A every day. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver used to play the first four to six weeks with eight-man pitching staffs, which allowed for optimized platooning. Now managers like to go into each game with eight-man bullpens.

Back in 2009, the second winning season in Rays franchise history, I wrote a column in September explaining why I thought Ben Zobrist should finish no worse than third in American League MVP balloting. To these eyes, Zobrist was invaluable to a winning team.

Zobrist played every defensive position except catcher and pitcher. He ranked third in the league in OPS. He granted manager Joe Maddon the flexibility to mix and match, both offensively and defensively.

Later, Zobrist helped lead the 2015 Royals and 2016 Cubs to World Series titles. This spring, Zobrist's every session was shadowed by Cubs prospect Ian Happ, who was told if he wanted to make it to Chicago quickly, he would have to learn to play second base, third base, first base and all three outfield spots. Happ took the advice and had started games at four positions.

Other super-utility players include the Brewers' Hernan Perez (six positions), the Astros' Marwin Gonzalez (five) and the Pirates' Adam Frazier (five).

"Roster configuration and construction are very important parts of every team in a pennant race," said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who served as Rays general manager in Zobrist's Tampa Bay heyday.

The Dodgers this year had accessed the versatility of Logan Forsythe, who covered third base while Justin Turner was out, and Chris Taylor(^), who covered for Forsythe at second base. Enrique Hernandez plays six positions, while backup catcher Austin Barnes has played second and third base in the majors.

Now the Dodgers are sending outfielder Brett Eibner, a two-way player at Arkansas, to Triple-A to try pitching.

"All the versatility allows us to carry eight relievers," Roberts said, "but if Eibner can throw an inning and hold the opposition in a 3-1 or 4-1 deficit, he may allow one of the regular relievers to get a day off from pitching or getting up and throwing."

Brewers general manager David Stearns understands that logic. "Having someone who could play in the field, pinch-hit or come in for a batter or an inning is an interesting idea," he said.

Several other GMs accepted the Eibner experiment and said they would look for players who fit that profile. "These days, you have to explore every idea," said one GM. Give the Padres credit for at least trying Christian Bethancourt as a pitcher-catcher-outfielder.

Thus teams are moving young players around to different positions in the minor leagues. One of the many things the Brewers love about shortstop Mauricio Dubon, whom they acquired in the Tyler Thornburg deal with the Red Sox, is not only Dubon's hand-eye skills and makeup, but his willingness to play every infield and outfield position while concentrating on shortstop.

"I don't think we could have constructed our team or the bullpen without Jose Ramirez(^) giving us so much flexibility," Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. Ramirez has started between 30 and 130 games at second base, shortstop, third base and left field. "Honestly, we have only two players who are everyday players at one position—Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis."

On the other hand, Boston had been set back by injuries to Brock Holt and Marco Hernandez, who would have provided far more flexibility.

Moving players around not only is a necessity in this era when teams have seven- and eight-man bullpens, but the days when teams always had a slick infielder on the bench have passed. I know people said Zobrist was a utilityman. He's not. He's a vital everyday player who can play anywhere, any time.

At least 14 players this season had started games at four or more positions. Now, baseball is at least experimenting with position players becoming pitchers. It happens in college, after all.

Because starters record fewer outs than ever before, teams find themselves relying on relievers—and those relievers need to have minor league options to create maximum efficiency—which invites original thoughts by original thinkers in front offices.

Earl Weaver could go with eight or nine pitchers. There are a lot of current managers who would like to go from seven to eight to nine relievers.

— Read more from Peter Gammons at GammonsDaily.com

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