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Kelby Tomlinson might be the most important player on the Giants' bench

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If he can play shortstop, that is. His brief performance in the Giants' 4-1 win made you think he could.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Kelby Tomlinson's defense last year was a little rough. We'll save the colorful descriptions in a shoebox and bury them, just in case Conor Gillaspie makes the roster, but there were problems with his range to his left, his arm, his hands, and his ability to turn the double play. He improved as the season went on, but not enough to make you think he would be ready to play second well, much less handle shortstop in an emergency.

But that was grossly unfair, perhaps. Here's a breakdown of his professional experience at second base before arriving in the majors:

  • Two games in Arizona Fall League (2011)
  • 73 games in Double-A (2014)
  • Seven games in AFL (2014)

Compare that with 313 games at shortstop in the minors, where he played from high school through college, including a stop with the Liberal Bee Jays in collegiate summer league. Now remember that baseball is hard, if you will, and suddenly it makes more sense. Dude's a shortstop. Always has been. He's used to the angles there, the reads, the feeds on double plays. Suddenly, he's asked to learn the finer points of second base in front of tens of thousands of people? And he's going to get critiqued by dorks like you and me? Seems rough.

It's not a fluke that he was starting the Giants' spring opener at shortstop, then. Not because he couldn't handle second -- again, he was much better by the end of last year -- but because Tomlinson playing a competent shortstop would allow the Giants to carry a wild card on the bench. Here's a hypothetical example:

If Tomlinson doesn't play well at short in the spring
Ehire Adrianza, SS/INF
Tomlinson, INF
Andrew Susac, C
Gregor Blanco, OF
Fifth outfielder, OF

That's assuming Tomlinson makes the bench at all if he can't play short. But it's pretty standard and about what we were expecting in the winter. If you prefer, you can replace Adrianza with your no-hit shortstop of choice. It doesn't change the general feel of the bench.

But if Tomlinson can play short, everything opens up a little. There's the power-'n'-speed bench:

Tomlinson, SS/INF

Susac, C

Blanco, OF

Kyle Blanks, 1B/OF

Gorkys Hernandez, OF

There's the contact-'n'-doubles bench:

Tomlinson, SS/INF

Susac, C

Blanco, OF

Conor Gillaspie, INF/3B

Fifth outfielder, OF

There's the youth-'n'-dingers bench:

Tomlinson, SS/INF

Susac, C

Blanco, OF

Jarrett Parker, OF

Mac Williamson, OF

And, of course, the wildly popular everyone-loves-three-catchers bench:

Tomlinson, SS/INF

Susac, C

Trevor Brown, C

Blanco, OF

Fifth outfielder, OF

That one would exist to get Andrew Susac some of the critical pinch-hitting at-bats late in close games, which makes a fair amount of sense.

Tomlinson's spring should have a direct effect on the Giants' desire to carry an all-glove, no-hit shortstop on the bench. You don't want to watch an all-glove, no-hit shortstop pinch-hitting with a runner on second and two outs in the 12th inning. I don't want to watch it. Bruce Bochy doesn't want to watch it. We're all agreed.

On Wednesday, he made three smooth plays at short. There was a slow roller that he charged and made a nice play on and two routine plays. Really, Brandon Belt probably could have made all three plays, so this isn't to say that Tomlinson is Brandon Crawford's defensive rival just yet. But he made the plays he was supposed to make, and he made them look easy, which he was also supposed to do.

That should make you more optimistic than you would have been if he borked the plays and caught the baseball on fire. Much more optimistic.

So that's probably the biggest storyline of the spring, at least when it comes to the last important decisions the Giants have to make with this roster. Can Tomlinson play shortstop? The early returns are positive, and don't forget that Baseball Prospectus thought he was a reasonable option at short in the minors, too.

If I had to guess, I would think Tomlinson at short would lead to three catchers on the active roster, so maybe this isn't too exciting. But a more versatile Tomlinson would lead to a more versatile bench, especially when it comes to pinch-hitting. A versatile bench is usually something to strive for.

(I'm secretly excited about the Giants' bench, everyone. Remind me of this in August, when it looks dumb.)