Super subs are now key players on pitching-dominated rosters
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) Jace Peterson starts out the day shagging fly balls in the outfield. Then, he changes gloves and heads to the infield to take some grounders.
Don’t try to label this guy with a position.
He can play just about all of them.
”Man, it’s fun,” Peterson said. ”You get to move around the diamond. You get to work everywhere.”
Peterson is part of an ever-growing trend on big league rosters: the super sub.
The Atlanta Braves have two of them, in fact.
Peterson can play second base, shortstop, third base and all three outfield positions. Chase d’Arnaud does him one better, having added first base to his repertoire this spring.
”Those guys are invaluable,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
All over baseball, teams are placing huge importance on those who can play everywhere – especially in an era when teams are carrying at least 12 pitchers on their 25-man rosters, leaving only four or five players on the bench.
It matters even more in the National League, where pitchers must hit and there are all sorts of lineup issues to deal with over the course of a game.
Pinch hitters. Double switches. Defensive changes.
One of the top priorities for the defending NL East champion Washington Nationals was to re-sign 33-year-old Stephen Drew, who didn’t exactly put up huge numbers last season (.266 with eight homers and 21 RBIs) but made starts at second, short, third and designated hitter.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker thinks these are jobs for more experienced players, one who ”had some success and knows not to get down when he doesn’t have success.”
Then again, Cleveland made it all the way to the World Series with a major contribution from 24-year-old Jose Ramirez, who in his first full big league season played 117 games at third base but also got time in the outfield (84 games), second base (nine) and even shortstop (five).
He hit .313 with 11 homers and 76 RBIs while shifting around to all nine spots in the batting order.
”A lot of times, with young guys, when they struggle, if they haven’t done it, you’re like, `Oh man, are they over their head a little bit?”’ Indians manager Terry Francona said. ”But when they’ve done it, it’s nice to know that.”
The World Series champion Chicago Cubs have the best of both worlds, relying heavily on 35-year-old Ben Zobrist and 24-year-old Javier Baez to shift seamlessly between the infield and outfield.
The New York Mets discuss the versatility of their players in the earliest days of spring training, hoping it will pay off when the games really count. Wilmer Flores has been a starter at every infield spot. This spring, the team is planning to give infielder Jose Reyes some work in the outfield, while outfielder Jay Bruce will spend time at first base. This could be especially important for a team that doesn’t know how much it will get from David Wright following neck surgery.
”If somebody goes down, can we move this guy or that guy here?” Mets manager Terry Collins said. ”You just never know when all of a sudden you look up, as we saw last year, and we need help. That versatility – if we have it and can make it work – will help us get better.”
Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield epitomizes the way the game is going.
He spent most of the last seven years in the minors in part because he didn’t have a true position. Now, he’s a near-lock for the Royals’ roster for the exact same reason. He played 81 games after finally getting called up last season, split between left field, right field, third, second, first and DH.
Texas has its own MVP off the bench with Jurickson Profar, a former top prospect who battled injuries and finally made it back to the big leagues for the first time since 2013. While he had some cringing stretches at first base, where he started 13 games after a very quick lesson, you won’t hear any complaints from the Rangers. He also got 15 starts at second base, 16 at third base, 10 at shortstop and eight in left field.
Some players are taking this versatility thing to the extreme.
Christian Bethancourt, who made it to the big leagues as a catcher, is now looking to pitch for the San Diego Padres.
”I’ve never done that before, but we created a plan,” he said. ”I’m getting better on the mound and they clocked me between 94 and 98. My breaking ball now is a cutter, and throw that around 88, 89. I’m working on a curve and a change.”
Jordan Schafer took a similar tack with an eye on extending his career. The 30-year-old outfielder is getting a chance to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals.
”We’re going to make this an opportunity for him to learn and compete, and then figure out how it fits,” manager Mike Matheny said.
D’Arnaud, who came up as a shortstop, figures he might already be pursuing another career if not for his versatility.
”I don’t know if I’d still be playing baseball if I’d never learned to play the outfield,” the 30-year-old said. ”It surely has helped out my career being able to play the infield and the outfield.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
AP Sports Writers Howard Fendrich in West Palm Beach, Florida; Tom Withers in Goodyear, Arizona; Bob Baum in Phoenix; Jay Cohen in Chicago; Mike Fitzpatrick in New York and Stephen Hawkins in Dallas, and AP freelance writers Bill Whitehead in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and Chuck King in Jupiter, Florida, contributed to this report.