In recent years, the prevalence of the super-utilityman has increased. Almost a decade ago, Ben Zobrist established the model for the MVP-caliber player who can play nearly every position on the diamond. Not every player who can make appearances from third base to right field is nearly as good as Zobrist, but whether it’s Zobrist and Javier Baez on the Cubs, or less-heralded players like Sean Rodriguez or Brock Holt, the number of guys who can plug in at any position is on the rise.
The Cubs earned praise for the versatility their roster exhibited last season due to players like Zobrist and Baez, and over at Baseball Prospectus last month, Rob Mains explored how more and more hyper-versatile players are cropping up, and how their value seems to be shooting up as well. The $11.5 million guarantee Rodriguez received from the Braves this offseason may seem modest, but it’s more than we’d typically expect for a 31-year-old with a career .693 OPS.
It makes sense that in this day and age, teams are more interested in finding or developing players that can play across the field. With stricter pitch counts and increased awareness of Times Through the Order Penalties leading to larger bullpens, it’s no wonder why teams can use versatile athletes that can fill multiple roles off the bench.
The Yankees generally haven’t enjoyed this kind of positional versatility. The last time the Yankees had a player make appearances across the diamond was when Clay Bellinger played six positions in 2001. With the Cubs showing just how useful versatility can be, and with teams seemingly put more value on the skill in general, should the Yankees be looking to find their own hyper-versatile players?
The kinds of players that can learn to play all over the field tend to be the ones with real defensive chops. Naturally, then, most players that end up being the most versatile tend to come up as middle infielders. It’s no surprise that last year’s top utilitymen were players like Baez, Jurickson Profar, Kike Hernandez, and Andrew Romine, players who came to the major leagues as shortstops. Players that can handle the most demanding position outside of catcher are more likely to have the skills to learn the other positions.
The Yankees, of course, have amassed quite the impressive cache of young talent at the middle infield positions. The Yankees major league double play-combo features Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro, both competent shortstops at the highest level. In the high minors, the Yankees have two blue chip middle infield prospects in Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo, as well as the defensively skilled Tyler Wade. Further down, the Yankees have the talented Wilkerman Garcia, and the all-glove no-bat Kyle Holder to round out a system stocked with middle infield prospects.
Should the Yankees be looking the see if any of these players have the ability to handle several positions? In fact, they’ve already been forced to at least begin such an experiment. By virtue of having so many talented shortstops, Mateo had to make 40 starts at second base last year in Double-A Trenton.
All of the Yankees’ middle infield prospects would seem to have the physical tools to play multiple positions, unsurprisingly, given their status as shortstops. MLB Pipeline ranked six Yankees’ middle infield prospects among the farm’s top 30, and every single one of them earned an above average grade (a 55 or higher on the scouting scale) for their fielding, running, and throwing tools.
The Yankees have shown willingness to bounce former second baseman Rob Refsnyder around the diamond. Now, the team would have the chance to do so with players with actual defensive skills, though there’s certainly risk to asking young, growing players to move off the positions they’ve probably played for most of their lives. It could hamper their development in unforeseen ways, removing them from established routines that got them to where they are now.
Plus, a potential positional log-jam doesn’t necessarily demand that everyone change positions. It’s unlikely that all the Yankees’ middle infield prospects will work out and end up blocked by the already major league caliber middle infielders playing in the Bronx, and if they do, then the Yankees will have an excellent problem on their hands. Having a huge surplus of good middle infielders with trade value is not a bad position to be in.
Even so, looking to see if any of these middle infield prospects can handle several positions still seems like worthwhile idea, and one that the team has hinted at exploring. To go along with his experience at second base and shortstop, Mateo has reportedly practiced in center field. Wade has made appearances in the Arizona Fall League as an outfielder. The Yankees seem to be slowly fleshing out what their prospects can handle on defense.
Mateo, with his 80-grade speed, seems like the best candidate to become a highly-versatile player. Torres might not have the quickness to stick at shortstop forever, and many scouts think he could be above average at other positions. That the Yankees are already trying Wade in the outfield indicates that they have put thought to whether their lower level middle infielders could increase their value with added versatility.
With most of these prospects still a year or two away, it’s easy to envision a scenario where this is all wasted speculation. Who knows where they will all end up, and which will actually hit enough to stick in the majors. Regardless, the Yankees have a real glut of talented middle infielders, and the idea of one or more them developing versatile defensive skills is enticing. If they happen to stumble upon a Zobrist or Baez-level player, the team could be far better off for it.