Joe Reisel's Archives
As teams feel more and more obligated to devote more and more roster spots to pitchers, defensive versatility - the ability to play more and more defensive positions - has become more and more important. Major league organizations are aware of this and are at least considering trying prospects at multiple positions to increase their versatility and consequently their values. In 2016, the Orioles tried Christian Walker, who had played exclusively at first base in his minor-league career, in left field; however, that was more of a desperation move because Chris Davis was blocking Walker at first base than a real hope that Walker could learn to play left field.
Walker was not the first player the Orioles tried at an unfamiliar position. It's not unusual for a player to rise through the ranks and get blocked at AAA. Back in 2014, the Tides were playing infielder Steve Lombardozzi in left field and the story was that he was being groomed as a left fielder. In reality, he was probably being groomed as a utility player. I decided to look back at the ten years Norfolk was the Orioles' AAA affiliate to see if the Orioles were emphasizing versatility.
I chose to focus on middle infielders, because it seems that most recently teams have begun to look for middle infielders who could also play third base and the outfield.. However, the nature of AAA baseball makes it hard to determine whether a player is being groomed for multiple positions or whether he's playing multiple positions out of desperation. AAA teams almost always carry twelve pitchers (or more), which leaves teams with at most a four-man bench. And AAA teams are often playing short-handed. When a player is promoted to the major-league team, especially if the promotion is likely to be short, often the AAA roster spot isn't filled. And when a player is demoted from the big-league team, the former big-leaguer has 48 hours to report - and the player being promoted leaves immediately. Finally, if a player on the 40-man roster but not the 25-man active roster is Designated for Assignment, he cannot play for his minor-league team while Designated.. It's not unusual for teams to have ten or eleven position players able to play a given game - and that forces the manager to be creative in filling out his lineup.
At a first cut, I identified all players who played at least ten games at either second base, third base, or shortstop in each season the Norfolk Tides were the Orioles AAA affiliate (2007-2016.) There were a total of 71 player-seasons. Then, I looked for players from that group who had played ten or more games at three of the following four positions - second base, third base, shortstop, and outfield. There were nine seasons that met those criteria:
Cesar Crespo, 2007: Cesar Crespo was a 28-year-old veteran of 132 big-league games who, in the previous two seasons, had played a full season of AAA after signing with a new team as a minor league free agent. Both of those teams had used Crespo as a utility man, and he continued at Norfolk (33 games at second, 21 at short, 39 in the outfield, 7 at third base.) He became a minor-league free agent once again after the season and never played again.
Melvin Dorta, 2009: Melvin Dorta was a 27-year-old who had played 15 games with the 2006 Washington Nationals. Like Crespo, Dorta had had a career as a AAA utility player and continued that trend in 2009 (35 games at second, 33 at third, 10 at short, and 19 in the outfield.) And, like Crespo, Dorta became a minor-league free agent after the season. Unlike Crespo, Dorta played one more year (with the Phillies organization), as a utility man.
Brandon Pinckney, 2009: Brandon Pinckney was another 27-year-old. He spent his career in the Indians organization but was unable to get to AAA; the Indians released him in April 2009. After a brief stint in the Atlantic Association, the Orioles signed him to provide AAA depth and he delivered (10 games at second, 42 at third, 24 in the outfield.) He became a minor-league free agent and spent part of 2010 in the Phillies organization and part in the Athletics' organization. He never played in the major leagues.
Justin Turner, 2009: Justin Turner was a 24-year-old whom the Orioles acquired from the Reds in the Ramon Hernandez trade. And it does look like the Orioles were grooming him as a versatile utility player (80 games at second, 15 at third, 14 at short.) Turner was capable of better things, however; the Mets claimed Turner on waivers in 2010 and he eventually became the Dodgers' regular third baseman.
Blake Davis, 2010: Blake Davis may be the player most obviously developed as a utility player. He started his professional career with the Orioles' organization in 2006, and reached Norfolk in 2009. He was purely a shortstop; but he didn't hit much and the Orioles didn't think he'd be a full-time shortstop. In 2010, he played 18 games at second, 22 at third, 22 at short, and 11 in the outfield.) In 2011, he became more of a full-time outfielder at Norfolk; but then he moved back and played 98 games at shortstop in 2012. He spent the 2013 season in the Brewers organization and the 2014 season in the Pirates organization before going unsigned.
Nick Green, 2011: Nick Green was a 32-year-old veteran of 392 major-league games, mainly at second and short. But by 2010 he had begun playing all around the infield; and after signing as a minor-league free agent he played as a utility player at Norfolk (20 games at second, 3 at third, 36 at short, 22 in the outfield.) Green was traded to the Rangers in July 2011 (for Zach Phillips) and eventually got back to the majors for 25 games with the Marlins in 2012-2013.
Brendan Harris, 2011: Brendan Harris was a 30-year-old veteran of 485 major-league games, about half at shortstop, a quarter at second base, and a quarter at third base. He already had a reputation for versatility when the Orioles got him from the Twins in the J.J. Hardy trade. Harris lived up to his reputation as a versatile infielder with Norfolk in 2011 (45 games at second, 36 at third, 51 at shortstop, 2 in the outfield.) Harris wasn't happy with the Orioles and they willingly let him leave as a minor-league free agent; he played 44 games with the Angels in 2013 and his career ended in June 2015.
Cord Phelps, 2014: Cord Phelps was a 27-year-old infielder whom the Orioles claimed on waivers from the Indians in November 2013. Phelps had a reputation as a good-hit, no-field second baseman, and it was clearly the Orioles hope that he could develop into a switch-hitting bat who could play multiple positions. With Norfolk, he played 31 games at second, 28 at third, 6 at shortstop, and 31 in the outfield. Despite a memorable 7-game stretch in which he had three walk-off hits, Phelps didn't hit as well as hoped and left the organization as a minor-league free agent. He spent 2015 in the Phillies' organization and did not play in 2016.
Steve Lombardozzi, 2014: Steve Lombardozzi had been a utility infielder for the Nationals before they traded him to the Tigers in the Doug Fister trade; the Tigers sent him to the Orioles for Alex Gonzalez just before the season. Lombardozzi was sent to Norfolk in May, and the Orioles did seem to be trying to increase his versatility (38 games at second; 16 at third, 5 at short, 22 in the outfield.) Lombardozzi was sold to the White Sox in the following off-season, and ended up in the Pirates organization for 2015 and the Nationals in 2016.
There seem to be four cases (Turner, Davis, Phelps, and Lombardozzi) in which the Orioles were actively trying to develop players to play multiple positions. It didn't work; the Orioles got nothing out of these players. It may have worked for Justin Turner himself; it's possible that his versatility got him a shot at a major-league career which he has turned into a 64-million-dollar contract. It's also true that none of those players projected to be stars and trying them at other positions may have been the only way to get value. Either way, we should be skeptical when the Orioles emphasize making a player more versatile. They haven't gotten much out of it.